|ACTS OF HATRED|
December 31, 1998
| DR. TOM ROSENTHAL: When I tap him --
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Tom Rosenthal is teaching young medical students to become family physicians. But the recent murder of his friend and colleague, Dr. Barnett Slepian, has shaken him and his Department of Family Medicine at the University of Buffalo. On October 23rd, Slepian was shot in the back and murdered while standing in his kitchen in suburban Buffalo. The 51-year-old doctor was an outspoken critic of the anti-abortion rights movement, and although his primary practice focused on delivering babies and gynecology, he performed abortions for poor women at this clinic in downtown Buffalo. Slepian's murder has prompted Rosenthal and his staff to talk about how they teach abortion procedures.
DR. TOM ROSENTHAL: We -- I'm embarrassed to say we were not talking about it prior to Dr. Slepian's assassination. We were being passive. We were probably not doing our job as educators and had just taken the easy route.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The "it" Rosenthal is talking about is abortion. For years, training in abortion procedures has been option for his students. It's the same at most other medical schools around the country. Michael Ziontz is a family medicine resident and was a founding member of the Buffalo chapter of a group called Med Students for Choice. He's very concerned that because so little is mentioned about the procedure during medical school and residency that very few young people will be trained to provide abortions in the future.
MICHAEL ZIONTZ: It was something that in the third year, during your OB/Gyn rotation, if you didn't want to, you know, to participate, it was never even presented to you.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ziontz' colleagues agree.
COLLEAGUE: In two years and to months of medical school I heard the word "abortion" once, and it was not in a discussion about the topic; it was in passing.
STACEY BLYTH: As a health care practitioner, I will be the doctor of an IV drug abuser at some point and I will be the doctor of the man who perpetuates domestic violence. They've done a good job of bringing up the fact that my job is to not be moral judge and jury and to be the health care practitioner. And yet this issue, which our mothers and our sisters and like almost half the female population has to struggle with at some point isn't brought up, and we're allowed to keep our kind of superficial social takes on things.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Rosenthal says that is something that needs to be addressed immediately. His staff is re-evaluating the school's curriculum -- but with difficulty.
SPOKESMAN: Were there training vehicles available? That's my concern.
SPOKESMAN: I guess it's a difficult question for me to answer because it's a training experience I would actively avoid, as a matter of personal preference. Hypothetically, if say you have a resident who believes in abortions, who believes that they should be performed and is willing to perform them, I don't think they're interested in the current setting - social political setting -- of all of the hassle. They don't want their house protested; they don't want - they certainly don't want to get shot, and that because of that, they'll just stay away from the whole thing. Most people are willing to hand it off to someone else.
SPOKESMAN: I'm not a big fan of abortion; I must prefer other things to happen. But if it's something that is legal and available, being limited by threats and blackmail, basically, it's to the point where it's pushing me to make a decision about whether or not I need to help support this.
DEMONSTRATORS: (singing) Jesus loves the unborn children of the world.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the ways the anti-abortion movement tries to discourage abortions is to stage what they refer to as house calls or protests in front of the homes of doctors who perform abortions. But there have also been violent forms of protests, protests that most anti-abortion activists distance themselves from. Slepian was the third doctor who performed abortions to be killed in the United States since 1993. In the last four years, one Rochester doctor and three Canadian doctors have also been wounded by snipers using high-powered rifles. Clinics are also often the targets. Last year, two Atlanta abortion clinics were bombed, injuring six people. This year, another clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was also bombed, killing an off-duty police officer and seriously wounding a nurse. The violence has caused many doctors to stop performing abortions, and more than 200 hospitals have stopped providing those services over the last ten years. Two clinics in Buffalo have also closed. The atmosphere has made even Michael Ziontz unsure of whether he'd perform abortions.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Would you do it yourself?
MICHAEL ZIONTZ: I think it's very sad that in answering your question I really have to consider the safety of myself and of my family.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you worry about that?
MICHAEL ZIONTZ: I think everybody does to some extent.
DOCTOR: The effect of Dr. Slepian's murder, I know of at least of the abortion providers who are obstetrician/gynecologists that at this point have stopped doing the procedure, which leaves maybe only one or two people left in the community of Buffalo that are willing to do it for now.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The fact that fewer doctors are performing abortions is seen by anti-abortion activists like Reverend Robert Behn as success.
REV. ROBERT BEHN: We're winning on the streets, and that's where the battle's got to be fought. And as long as we're out there on the streets and as long as babies are saved, we have an average about 300 a year - women that chose life for their children because we're there.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Marilyn Buckham, part owner of the one clinic that remains open in Buffalo, says the protests and the violence won't force her to close her doors.
MARILYN BUCKHAM: If the accomplishment was to put us out of business, it didn't happen. And the staff that work here, the committed women, and myself have made sure that access will continue; that's a big statement, and we're just saying, you may have shot and killed our best - our best doctor. But it didn't make us stop. And we're not going to stop.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Moments after this interview, Buckham, herself was the target of a death threat called in to the office. Karen Swallow-Prior is a Christian high school principal and anti-abortion activist who is also very troubled by the violence. She says the pro-life movement has been tarnished by these acts, even though she believes pro-life activists have had nothing to do with them. She says Dr. Slepian's death has been a wake-up call for her too.
KAREN SWALLOW-PRIOR: It just really has caused me to think through the consistency of the pro-life message that we're sending and making sure that we are getting the message across more effectively because for anyone to even make the mistake that this could be in any way connected with the pro-life movement is a tragedy for the movement. Whoever did this was not acting on a pro-life principle.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But others in the anti-abortion movement don't see it quite that way.
SPOKESMAN: God loves you and your baby.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Immediately after Slepian was killed, Reverend Donald Spitz, head of Pro-Life Virginia, called the sniper a hero.
REV. DONALD SPITZ: The reason I said that, that he was a hero - he or she was a hero - is this: Doctor abortionist baby killer Slepian has had a history of murdering unborn babies, so whoever the sniper was, male or female, that shot this abortionist, that shot this baby killer, saved those innocent human beings from being murdered by Dr. Slepian.
BEETTY ANN BOWSER: Clinic owner Buckham says it's that kind of rhetoric that has escalated the violence.
MARILYN BUCKHAM: Talking about "femi-nazis" and making us that run abortion clinics look like we have two heads and that we're the villains and the murderers, along with the doctors, I can't say enough about how the rhetoric has brought a climate of hate.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ironically, that climate of hate may have intensified because of several Supreme Court rulings intended to de-escalate confrontations. Back in the late 1980s and early 90s Operation Rescue staged massive blockades of Buffalo abortion clinics. Those blockades were eventually challenged by abortion rights leaders who succeeded in getting a federal court injunction that kept protesters 15 feet from clinic entrances. Lucinda Finley is a law professor who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But she concedes that those rulings may have fueled some of the violent activity.
LUCINDA FINLEY: The people who had been advocating just that, sort of semi-peaceful blockade style of protest got discouraged, and as the people who advocated the more peaceful forms of protest sort of drifted away and got discouraged, I think that left a vacuum in the leadership of the ant-abortion movement into which those who are more extremist and advocate violence stepped in to fill that vacuum.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Anti-abortion activist Swallow-Prior agrees.
KAREN SWALLOW-PRIOR: If we have removed the means for legitimate non-violent social dissent, then that just opens the door for those who believe in violence to employ those methods. I mean, this comes from the Civil Rights movement where there was a legitimate and needed place for non-violent civil disobedience. And that is the most effective way to bring about social change. But if we don't have that then - as I believe Kennedy said - if we make non-violent protest impossible, then violent protests is inevitable. And I think that may be what we're seeing here.
SPOKESMAN: But I will rebuke you and set them in order before your eyes.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the organizations trying to tone down the heated rhetoric on both sides is Common Ground. It recently held a 24-hour vigil in remembrance of Dr. Slepian in which both anti-abortion and abortion rights activists came together to read from the Book of Songs.
SPOKESMAN: They beset me with words of hate and attacked me without cause.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Rev. Stan Bratton is director of Common Ground.
REV. STAN BRATTON: I think the more you escalate the rhetoric, the more you say to some people it's all right then to take the next step, to physically act out against somebody, to kill someone. And I think we need to be very careful with that. I think we have to look at that. Whether you are going to engage in Common Ground or not, I think you need to think twice about what you say because it has enormous consequences.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bratton's goal is not to have one side compromise on the issue but to find issues where the two sides can work together, like reducing teen pregnancy. But he has his work cut out for him.
REV ROBERT BEHN: There is no common ground in abortion; it's either murder or it isn't murder, and you have to make a decision if that's a life and that baby in the mother's womb, if that's a life, or if it's just a piece of tissue.
LUCINDA FINLEY: I'm somewhat skeptical that on the core underlying fundamental issue the availability and legality of abortion, that there is common ground. I'm even skeptical that there's common ground on the increased availability and access to contraception. So if certain issues are sort of off the table for one side, namely the continued legality and safety of abortion, I'm not sure where that leave us for common ground.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nevertheless, Common Ground plans several workshops in the coming months trying to get both sides to move beyond words and acts of hate.