If anyone thought that the abortion controversy was settled in 1973 by Roe v. Wade,(1) or any of the subsequent abortion cases decided by the Supreme Court,(2) the recent murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian reveals this as an illusion.(3) Abortion continues to be a divisive, and sometimes violent, American problem.(4) Since 1993, seven people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics or individual doctors.(5) Dr. Slepian was the third doctor to be killed.(6) He was a brave and principled man, who knew the risks he ran. He had been singled out by anti-abortion picketers in 1992, and after the shooting death of a Florida abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn, in 1993,(7) Dr. Slepian told The Buffalo News, "It probably hits home a little bit because it could have been me."(8)
Faced with adverse publicity, losing patients, harassment, and even death, it is no surprise that many obstetricians are unwilling to perform abortions, even if they think that women have the right to choose. As Mark Graber says in his book Rethinking Abortion, "[a]bortion laws on the books that offer women the right to terminate their pregnancies do not guarantee that women who want abortions will find a competent and willing provider."(9) Many hospitals do not provide patients with abortions, and many medical schools do not teach abortion techniques.(10) "In 1992, 84 percent of all counties in the United States lacked a single abortion provider."(11) Particularly for rural women, it is harder and harder to find someone to perform an abortion.(12) Yet despite the pressures he faced, Dr. Slepian continued to perform abortions not only because he believed that women have the right to have abortions, but also, and more importantly, because he refused to abandon his patients. He provided his patients with all the services of an ob/gyn. He treated cervical cancer, he delivered hundreds of babies, and he did abortions. He paid for his devotion to his patients with his life. In his memory, I would like to ask for a moment of silence.
It is not only pro-choice advocates who condemn the killings of doctors and clinic workers. Most pro-life activists, including leaders of the Catholic Church, have said that it is inconsistent with being pro-life to kill anyone.(13) Yet given the premise that abortion is murder, is it wrong to kill someone who performs abortions? If you knew someone was about to go into a school and gun down schoolchildren, would it not be justified to do what was necessary to stop him, even if it meant killing him? In fact, wouldn't someone who killed the gunman be praised as a hero? Most of us are not total pacifists when it comes to protecting innocent lives, especially the lives of children. This being the case, it is difficult to see how one can maintain both that abortion is murder and that the killing of the murderer is a heinous act. And yet, in popular surveys, a substantial number of Americans have subscribed both to the view that abortion is murder and to the view that women should be able to make this decision.(14) Perhaps the way to explain this apparent contradiction is to say that people recognize that abortion is killing, and they call it "murder" to indicate that it is killing that is regrettable, perhaps even tragic. But it cannot be consistently regarded both as murder and as a woman's right.