The phone rang shortly after midnight on October 24, 1998. My husband answered, waking me after hanging up. “Channel 4 just called,” he said. The usual evenness of his voice was broken by a whisper of urgency. “Barnett Slepian was shot. He just died at the hospital.” I couldn’t comprehend if I was awake or asleep. “They want you to come into the news station first thing in the morning.” The fog slipped away. This wasn’t a bad dream. It was a nightmare.
Slepian had been a prominent abortion doctor in Buffalo, New York. That night, he’d been preparing dinner after returning home from a service at his synagogue. While he stood in front of his kitchen window, a sniper hiding in the woods nearby aimed through the glass and shot Slepian in the head.
When an abortion provider is shot, abortion opponents are the first suspects. Over the next three weeks, AP, Time, CNN, CBS, and every local news outlet grilled me as the spokesperson for Buffalo’s local pro-life movement. The headline of Sunday’s Buffalo News was “The Abortion Assassination.” Under it was a picture of then-President Clinton with his statement. Next to Clinton’s picture was mine. “For anyone to take it upon himself to be judge, jury, and executioner is nothing but sheer evil,” I said.
Three weeks after the murder, I was being interviewed by Melissa Block of NPR when a knock at my office door interrupted us. When I opened the door, two women pulled out their IDs. “You’ve been expecting us, Karen,” said one of the FBI agents with a friendly smile.
I had joined the pro-life movement 11 years earlier. I was 22, and up to that point hadn’t thought much about abortion. Then, one Sunday evening, the Baptist church where my husband and I had been married hosted a local crisis pregnancy center. The center showed a film called The Silent Scream on a television sitting atop a rickety cart at the front of the sanctuary. From one of the back pews, I could barely see the first trimester abortion the video showed via ultrasound. But I could hear the voiceover of Bernard Nathanson, a one-time abortionist who had changed his mind. The conviction that abortion kills a tiny, fully human being seeped into my soul that night like a permanent dye.
I began volunteering at the pregnancy center that had shown the video. By the next year, my pastor and other church members had joined Operation Rescue, a pro-life organization that uses nonviolent civil disobedience centered on bodily blocking access to abortion facilities. The strategy had a three-fold purpose: to prevent the abortions scheduled at a given facility, to challenge the legal system protecting abortion by clogging it with arrests and trials, and to show solidarity with the children the laws fail to protect.
One bitter cold January morning, my husband and I arose at 5, donned endless layers of clothing, and sat with dozens of others before the doors of one local abortion clinic. We remained there all the hours it took for the police to carry each of us away, one by one, as we passively resisted. Going limp bought time. It took four officers to carry one person away from the building and into the police bus that would take us to the courtroom to be booked. No abortions took place in the facility that day—or on many other days at other facilities throughout the city and beyond. Operation Rescue claims to have accrued more than 75,000 arrests for nonviolent blockades, calling itself the largest civil disobedience movement in American history. Like all peaceful civil disobedience in pursuit of justice, I believed our work was noble, honorable, and just. I still do.
I spent ten years on those front lines in the culture war of the 1980s and early ’90s: protesting, praying, counseling, and blockading. After the first year, I became the media spokesperson for our loose assemblage, drawn fairly evenly from Catholic, charismatic, fundamentalist, and Baptist groups throughout Buffalo. As arrests mounted (including five of my own) and eventually resulted in numerous federal cases, I also served as court liaison. In most cases, charges were dismissed due to lack of evidence, or because the sheer number of arrests made individual guilt difficult to prove. Sometimes abortion providers had us arrested, knowing the charges wouldn’t stick, just to get us out of their hair for a few hours. We always came back.
Those years were filled with exhilarating victories: strangers coming up to me in the supermarket to voice support, skilled lawyers defending us pro bono, local judges ruling in our favor, and, most important, women changing their minds at the clinics.
One woman who left a clinic without going through with an abortion came out to speak with the sidewalk counselors. She had changed her mind but wanted medical care right away. It was a Saturday, so I called my OB-GYN at home. He met us at his closed office, where I took the role of attendant while he conducted an ultrasound, and the tearful mother got to see her baby for the first time. A week later, two pastors met with the woman’s husband, and he prayed to receive Christ.
The protests caused some women to reject abortion before even going to a clinic. One of these women was a student of mine. When she came to my office to tell me she was pregnant, she admitted she had contemplated abortion, but the thought of running into me at the clinic gave her pause. Instead, she and her boyfriend married and went on to have a beautiful family.
These were heady experiences. But while the victories were intoxicating, the tolls were heavy.
Forgetting the Enemy
As my profile grew, I received nasty phone calls, a coat hanger in my mailbox, another on my car windshield, and the threat of picketing at our home. I got enough hate mail that the FBI opened a file for it all. One night, US marshals knocked on my door to deliver papers in a federal lawsuit against the protests. Hardest was the hostility I received from my peers and professors as I struggled to complete my PhD at the State University of New York at Buffalo. One horrible day, I visited the university infirmary, where I was ordered to check in for the night because I had become so sick and dehydrated.
And at one point, I realized it had been two years since I had witnessed a woman changing her mind at a clinic.
One who didn’t change her mind was a student of mine. Our conversation outside the clinic ended with me in tears, while she assured me that it would “be all right.”
I feared it wouldn’t be—not only for the baby she aborted but for her, too. At the pregnancy center, I had become a Bible study leader. There, a number of women ranging from their teens to the senior years came to terms with and received forgiveness for their abortions.
One of these women had been following coverage of the protests. She regretted her abortion, but she was also conflicted about what she saw in the news. She could not reconcile the person she knew me to be with the person she saw protesting on TV. I tried to explain how our clinic protests were consistent with what she saw of me in our study. She was doubtful. And I understood. For the first time, I felt conflicted between my two roles: activist and advocate. I could see their consistency, but some of the people we were trying to reach couldn’t, and that troubled me.
But what was taking place at the clinics—both inside and out—was far more disturbing.
One rainy day, our plans for a sit-in were foiled by counter-protestors, so we knelt in prayer on the lawn in front of the clinic. “Hey, this isn’t a church!” the pro-choice protestors jeered. I kept my eyes closed, trying to focus on praying while their taunts continued. They began a burping contest. They made vulgar comments. Then they homed in on me, calling my recent press statements stupid, saying I looked like a “dishrag,” then a “whore.” I kept my eyes closed and kept praying. They mocked our posters as “fetal porn” and acted out things that I could only guess at based on the obscene noises they made.
It grew more horrifying. They said they were hungry and wanted “fetal soup,” and the noises they made grew more revolting. We remained kneeling in prayer, and the heavens rained down softly on the just and unjust alike.
That day I understood that our struggle was “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). But I did not foresee that a failure to understand this—to think that these people were our enemies and not Satan himself—would allow the pro-life side to succumb to the powers of this world.
Is it possible for mere mortals to come so close to such evil and emerge untainted? It doesn’t seem so. The violence inherent in the act of abortion cannot be contained. Murder delights the powers of darkness—no matter which side commits it, or why.
‘Something Has to Change’
At least 11 people, including 4 doctors, have been killed by abortion opponents in the United States since 1993. In all but two cases (George Tiller was shot at his church, Slepian at his home), the shootings were at the abortion facilities. Most of the shootings took place in the 1990s, after laws changed across the country, severely increasing penalties for nonviolent protest and limiting pro-life speech outside clinics in the form of “buffer zones.”
Although he was a pro-life activist, the man convicted in 2002 of Slepian’s murder, James Kopp, had no ties to our work. But we didn’t know this on the day the FBI agents interviewed me for two hours in my office, trying to help me recall anything that might lead them to the culprit or accomplices.
Many of the agents’ questions centered on statements made by local pro-life leaders. Trying to account for their language was an act of translation. I had to explain that when one of the pro-lifers said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword,” it was not a command. I also had to convince the agents that when a pro-lifer announced—just a few days after Slepian was killed—that God had chosen our city as a “battleground,” he meant a spiritual battle, not a physical one.
“I just wish Christians would learn to speak the world’s language,” I later wrote, frustrated, in my journal. Learning the native tongue is one of the first tasks of any missionary to a foreign land. Why would it be any different within our own fractured culture?
This frustration was largely why I had been slowly pulling away from local activists since the big national rescue I’d helped lead in 1992 (the “Spring of Life”). I was feeling increasingly at odds with national and pro-life leaders over their polarizing behavior and language. That summer—six years before Slepian’s death—I sank to the lowest morale in my years of activism.
It happened one morning while at one of the clinics. As usual, pro-choice activists were cajoling the pro-lifers. But when the women coming for abortions headed into the clinic, some of the pro-lifers swarmed them like flies. Not only was it frightening the women, it was also preventing sidewalk counselors from reaching them. I knew such lack of order reflected a crisis of leadership, but I didn’t know how to fix it. “Something has to change drastically,” I wrote in my journal that day, “before something drastic happens.”
Next I made a phone call—to a local abortionist. It was his office where I had sidewalk counseled every week and where I’d been arrested a couple of times. This doctor had said in a recent interview that he thought the sidewalk counselors’ work was noble, but that we were going about it the wrong way. Frustrated with both sides of the issue, I decided to call his bluff. Or maybe I was calling my own bluff. If he thought our efforts were noble, then he had the power to let us go about it more nobly. I was going to ask him to let us into his building to talk to patients there rather than trying to reach across the chasm that separated the sidewalk and the clinic door.
Astonishingly, the abortionist and I had a couple of phone conversations. In the end, he told me that the pro-choice organization that supplied volunteer escorts threatened to pull its support if he worked with pro-lifers. “It wasn’t the most productive conversation I’ve had in the world,” I wrote in my journal afterward, but “it was very civil and respectful—which is a lot considering all that’s happened.” It gave me hope.
A few weeks later, an attorney for the pro-choice side in the federal restraining order against us approached me in court. He whispered that one of his clients wanted him to meet with me on his behalf. Word had gotten around about my talks with the abortionist. His client, whom he wouldn’t name, was interested in discussing what I’d proposed.
We later met at the attorney’s office after business hours (he’d asked me not to tell anyone about his request to meet). I was shocked to learn that the client was Barnett Slepian. Of all the local abortion providers, Slepian seemed the most hostile and most deeply entrenched in the business of abortion.
Some pro-lifers who heard of my attempts to speak with abortion providers were critical, even condemnatory. “What has light to do with darkness?” I was asked countless times. As if all of us, as citizens in a nation under a government by the people, don’t share in some guilt for the blood of millions of unborn children.
Several years after Slepian’s murder, after a new job had taken me to another state and another life, I was contacted by a writer working on a book about Slepian. It wasn’t until the writer, Eyal Press, was sitting in my office that I learned he was the son of another abortion provider I’d protested. I had been arrested twice at his father’s office. Meeting Press was surreal; his father could just have easily been the one murdered. It tore me open and put me back together again—almost.
Over two days of interviews, I defended pro-life activism, including nonviolent civil disobedience and Operation Rescue. But when the subject turned to Slepian, a wave of grief swept over me. “I remember that Sunday in church [after the murder], just thinking about how he had a wife and sons at home that were without their father and husband.” I paused.
“The idea that I might have anything even remotely to do with that just really is . . . awful.” I broke into sobs and couldn’t stop. “I don’t—it’s just the thought of it . . . just to even be tainted with that is pretty awful.”
I had turned away from Press, but now I looked at him squarely. “I think about those boys a lot. Of course, they’re young men now—just like you.”
In his book Absolute Convictions, Press recounted our conversation:
I sat frozen, caught between two conflicting impulses. One was to reach over, clasp Prior’s hand, and offer her the comfort anyone would think to extend at such a moment. Undoubtedly her regret stemmed partly from how the shooting had tarnished the legacy of a cause in which she believed so fervently. But it was rooted as well in real sympathy for Barnett Slepian’s family, for those who had known him as a loving husband and father; rooted, too, I sensed, in a feeling of at least some responsibility. Maybe sitting there in my presence, putting a face to the memory (albeit the face of another abortion provider’s son), elicited these feelings. If so, my meeting Prior served a purpose, evoking an expression of compassion—and of remorse—that transcended the barriers of a conflict that all too often prevented people from recognizing the humanity of their adversaries.
These words, penned by the son of one of my enemies in the culture war, are the essence of the entire abortion conflict: “recognizing the humanity” of the other. The tragedy of the conflict is the failure of both sides to recognize the humanity, whether that of the abortionist or that of the nascent child.
The years I had spent mourning deaths of the unborn had not provided me a moral, spiritual, or linguistic framework for mourning the death of a man—also a human being created by God—responsible for some of those deaths.
This tangle of emotions was dredged up again after three people were killed and nine others injured at a Colorado Planned Parenthood last November. Just as it had following Slepian’s murder, the role of inflammatory rhetoric emerged in the news analysis that followed. Certainly, we need to call sin what it is. Yet, Scripture admonishes us to speak the truth in love. It is imperative that we who recognize the humanity of the unborn child not resort to language that serves to dehumanize others, even those who do evil. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he pointed out her sin by saying, “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” But he didn’t reduce her to the worst thing she’d done by labeling her “adulterer.”
I think, too, of the many women I led through the post-abortion study. Their own consciences condemned them far more than anyone else’s accusatory words ever could. I think of many in this debate whose hearts have been hardened by words of condemnation rather than love. I think, too, of the men I’ve met who struggle with guilt and remorse over abortions.
And I think a lot about Barnett Slepian, his widow, his sons, and what might have become of him had not someone chosen to take Slepian’s life into his own hands in the ultimate act of dehumanization.
I wasn’t the only pro-lifer to whom Slepian had reached out. Shortly after his death, The New York Times reported that he had begun to stop and chat with protestors outside the Womenservices Clinic, where he had worked two days a week. After he learned that some protestors were preparing to demonstrate at his home, he invited the protest’s organizer to breakfast.
The two went to breakfast and had a meeting The New York Times described as “inconclusive.” The pro-life leader dismissed Slepian’s overture as merely an “attempt to get people to like him.”
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Because of a sniper’s bullet, we will never know what Barnett Slepian’s life—and God—had in store.
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and author most recently of Fierce Convictions (Zondervan, 2015). She lives with her husband and dogs in Virginia.
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