Photo courtesy of FBI
in the Clinics
By Darryl McGrath
James Kopp awaits sentencing for the murder of an abortion
doctor in Buffalo, abortion-services workers worry that
other extremists are training to carry on his work—and wish
the feds would exert greater effort in rooting them out
Kopp may very well spend the rest of his life in prison
for gunning down an abortion doctor in his kitchen in suburban
Buffalo. So why don’t more abortion-services workers in
upstate New York feel safe?
the argument could be made that clinic workers should at
least feel safer, given that the man believed to
be responsible for the shootings of five abortion doctors
in upstate New York and Canada is locked up.
Kopp, who was convicted last month in Erie County Court
of the murder of Dr
Barnett Slepian, has been charged in the shooting of another
doctor and is a suspect in the shootings of three more.
He has freely admitted to killing Slepian by firing a high-powered
Russian assault rifle through a back window of the doctor’s
Amherst home. Kopp never implicated anyone else in the murder.
The best efforts of federal and state investigators to uncover
a conspiracy by a radical anti-abortion terrorist group
in the case so far have been unsuccessful. The only other
two people charged in connection with the killing are Loretta
Claire Marra and Dennis Malvasi, a New York City couple
accused by federal authorities of helping Kopp flee the
United States after Slepian’s murder.
A spate of other, non-fatal shootings of abortion doctors
in upstate New York and Canada from 1994 to 1998 abruptly
stopped at the same time that Kopp went on the run.
After the murder, additional doctors stepped in to take
Slepian’s place at the clinic on Buffalo’s Main Street,
where he performed abortions. Abortion services in the Buffalo
region have actually expanded in the three and a half years
since Slepian’s murder. And the massive demonstrations by
the more radical factions of the anti-abortion movement
that were expected in Buffalo during the state’s trial of
Kopp last month never materialized.
But a number of abortion-services workers say that despite
these many encouraging signs, they have never let their
guard down. To them, it’s not enough that Kopp is behind
bars and that state and federal laws have made it far more
risky for anti-abortion extremists to harass, threaten or
attack reproductive health clinics. Many clinic staff members
have a very real fear that one of the dozens of domestic
terrorist groups that target abortion clinics in the United
States is already training a replacement for James Kopp.
They worry that somewhere right now, a gunman is practicing
his marksmanship on some isolated rural tract of land, just
like Kopp did.
always been our concern—what’s next? Because we still don’t
think that’s the end of it,” says Marilynn Buckham,
executive director of the GYN Womenservices clinic, where
Slepian performed abortions.
In 1997, a Rochester doctor who performed abortions—law-enforcement
authorities have never released his name—was shot and wounded
outside his home.
Three years earlier, anti-abortion extremists had used butyric-acid
attacks to close a Syracuse Planned Parenthood clinic and
the office of a Syracuse doctor who performed abortions.
In November 2001, Planned Parenthood of Buffalo & Erie
County had to close when a staff member opened a Federal
Express package and a white powder spilled out in what appeared
to be an anthrax attack. The substance turned out not to
be anthrax; however, the Buffalo clinic is one of hundreds
that have been targeted with similar bioterrorism threats
Around these incidents, individual abortion-clinic staff
members have at different times been threatened, stalked
or besieged in their workplaces during anti-abortion protests
that have sometimes gone on for weeks at a stretch.
hope for the best, we prepare for the worst, but our history
unfortunately demonstrates that those of us dealing with
reproductive health care have to deal with violent threats,”
says Dana Neitlich, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood
Neitlich is among those who believe that a new recruit may
take James Kopp’s place.
is no question that there are organized groups who attempt
to encourage and, in fact, attempt to recruit anti-choice
members who will assume a posture or a stance that violence
toward abortion providers is justifiable, and in the eyes
of God,” she says.
Paul Drisgula, co-president and chief executive officer
of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, agrees, basing his
belief on his own experiences. Longstanding anti-abortion
protests against a Utica clinic that was part of the Mohawk
Hudson network prompted Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to
file a 2001 lawsuit against four members of a Utica family
for repeatedly obstructing access to the clinic.
The lawsuit became the test case for the state’s new clinic
access law, and it could be argued that Spitzer won the
battle but not the war. While Spitzer succeeded in halting
the family’s protests at the Utica site, at least one member
of the family turned her attentions to a different clinic
and started protesting there, buttressing Drisgula’s belief
that the most hard-core protestors can’t easily be thwarted.
there be another James Kopp? Of course there could
be. Is it likely? I dont think so. He appeared
to be unique, thank goodness.Frank
Clark, Erie County district attorney.
Photo byLisa Haarlander
month, Drisgula was at the annual conference of the National
Planned Parenthood Federation in Portland, Ore. Conference
attendees noticed that a van kept circling the hotel. When
police pulled the van over, they found a gun on one of the
passengers, Drisgula says.
During the same conference, Drisgula was walking out of
the hotel when a man carrying a sign accosted him. “Is this
clear enough to you?” the man asked. The sign read: “Kill
all the murdering abortionists.”
do believe that there are very few degrees of separation
between a number of people who picket regularly at clinics
around the state, and people who support murdering physicians,”
Drisgula says. “We’re pretty much aware of the fact that
even if they don’t propose violence themselves, a number
of our local folks are not that far removed from people
who advocate violence against clinics.”
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion
Federation, an abortion-rights organization, says workers
in reproductive health clinics are prudent to fear for their
of the reasons they don’t feel safe is there has been a
pattern of violence aimed at abortion providers for more
than 25 years,” she says. “Within four to seven months,
we in all likelihood will have another assassination attempt.
These people recruit others to take their place.”
National Abortion Federation staff members have charted
the pattern of shootings around the country and have discovered
that they occur in clusters, suggesting that would-be shooters
have either been inspired or recruited to take the place
of fellow extremists who have been arrested. A series of
shootings and killings between 1993 and 1994, ending in
the deaths of five abortion clinic doctors or staff members,
and the wounding of another, happened in rapid succession,
months apart: March and August 1993; and then July and December
While no link among all four shootings was ever established,
one of the killers, Paul Hill —convicted and sentenced to
death in the Florida shootings of a doctor and an escort
at a Pensacola clinic—said he had been inspired by Michael
Griffin, who 16 months earlier had also shot and killed
a doctor at a Pensacola clinic.
It was at this time, back in 1994, that another shooting
took place, one that barely gained notice on the national
scene, in part because it happened in Canada, not the United
States, and in part because it didn’t result in a death.
In November 1994, an abortion doctor in Vancouver, British
Columbia, was shot and wounded in his home. The assailant
used a high-powered assault rifle to fire through the rear
of the house.
The sniper operated with the stealth of a deer hunter, slipping
into sheltered areas behind the homes of abortion doctors—always
at night, or the early morning when it was still dark—and
Five such shootings occurred in Canada and upstate New York
between November 1994 and Slepian’s killing in October 1998.
The only fatality was Slepian, who died on a Friday night
in front of his wife and four children, minutes after getting
home from a memorial service for his father.
As one Canadian investigator put it, all of the cases were
“shockingly similar.” They always occurred in the fall,
leading some investigators to believe that the sniper wanted
the leaf cover to hide footprints in the wooded areas used
as shelter during the shootings.
four to seven months, we in all
likelihood will have another assassination attempt.
These people recruit others to
take their place.
Photo by John Normile/Getty Images
all but one—the shooting of the unnamed doctor in Rochester—the
sniper fired through a rear window of the home. The Rochester
doctor was on his property but outside of his house when
he was hit. In every case except the first, in Vancouver,
the gun was fired from a wooded area. A fence concealed
the sniper in the Vancouver attack.
Kopp never admitted to any shooting other than the Buffalo
murder of Slepian. The high-powered Russian assault rifle
that Kopp later admitted using in the murder was found buried
in the woods behind Slepian’s home.
Still, Canadian authorities have charged him in the shooting
of Dr. Hugh Short, an Ontario gynecologist who was shot
and wounded in November 1995. Frank Clark, Erie County District
Attorney, says Kopp is a suspect in the Rochester shooting
and the two other Canadian shootings.
It’s uncertain whether Canada will ever extradite Kopp for
trial, says Inspector Keith McCaskill of the Winnipeg Police
Service, spokesman for the Canadian investigations.
Canada did not press for action on its case last year when
the United States extradited Kopp from France, where he
had been living under a false identity.
was appropriate,” McCaskill says. “Although our offenses
were very, very serious, there was a murder in New York.
With a case like that, you may very well see, depending
on that outcome, that Mr. Kopp may never see the light of
Canadian authorities worked with abortion providers to develop
heightened security measures, which McCaskill won’t discuss.
was certainly a feeling of fear on the part of people performing
therapeutic abortions,” he says. “It was almost a feeling
Still, for all the precautions taken by Canadian authorities,
McCaskill says there is only so much that law-enforcement
agencies can do to protect abortion-services workers.
think just the nature of the occupation they’re in, I think
people have to be guarded at all times,” he says.
Elizabeth McDonald has a ready response when told that abortion-services
workers fear for their safety.
should they feel safe?” asks the longtime St. Louis anti-abortion
extremist. “These are people who kill children for a living.
There’s distinctions between innocent lives and those who
are posing an imminent threat to the lives of the innocent.
Preserving the lives of the innocent takes precedent over
the lives of those who would attack them.”
McDonald has known Kopp since 1986, through their shared
involvement in the extremist faction of the anti-abortion
movement. He stayed at her home in the mid-1980s when both
participated in “rescues” through Pro-Life Direct Action
League, a group which McDonald says is now defunct.
She is corresponding with Kopp in prison, where he is awaiting
his May sentencing. She sat through his one-day trial last
month in Buffalo, maintaining eye contact with him in response
to the greetings he mouthed to the handful of supporters
who showed up in the Buffalo courtroom. Like Kopp, she has
been arrested more times than she can count.
When asked during a court recess for her reaction to Slepian’s
murder, McDonald smiled and replied, “I know the shooting
was justified. There were babies who were going to be killed
She is dismissive of more mainstream anti-abortion organizations
that eschew violence, such as the National Right to Life
Committee. “They hardly speak for us,” she says. “They’re
focused on the political, largely.”
is the community of self-named “rescuers,” the people who
gained national attention a decade ago by physically blocking
abortion clinics and chaining themselves to fences to disrupt
Although the rescue movement has largely fallen into disarray—done
in by fractious relationships among its leaders and the
threats of walloping fines under the 1994 federal Freedom
of Access to Clinic Entrances Act—a number of its adherents
still believe that violence is justifiable in stopping abortions.
McDonald, 52, a divorced artist who has two children, became
drawn to the anti-abortion movement almost 25 years ago
after her best friend had an abortion and then suffered
what McDonald calls “devastating” emotional trauma over
There may be hundreds, even thousands, of anti-abortion
extremists in the United States who believe, as McDonald
does, that any means necessary should be used to stop abortions.
But law-enforcement authorities say they have never been
able to establish that there is link among these diverse
groups and individuals.
number of doctors have been shot over the last 10 to 15
years,” says Kathleen Mehltretter, first assistant United
States Attorney for the Western District of New York, who
has been the lead investigator in the pending federal case
against Kopp. “That in itself proves that the conviction
of one person doesn’t mean that all doctors are safe. But
it’s never been established that any of these persons convicted
of shooting doctors were related.
are many people motivated by the same belief,” Mehltretter
adds. “You have to have evidence to establish a link and
charge a conspiracy.”
Clark, the Erie County District Attorney, agrees that it
would be difficult to prove that a statewide or even national
underground organization exists that is training and financing
the next James Kopp.
are no absolutes, but I don’t think it makes much sense
to say there are sleeper cells out there,” he says. “Could
there be another James Kopp? Of course there could be. Is
it likely? I don’t think so. He appeared to be unique, thank
Semantics matter to repro-ductive-health-services workers.
They want the adherents of the extremist anti-abortion movement
labeled as terrorists. It’s a label that does not easily
enter the abortion debate, but those pushing for such a
change in the lexicon also feel that with that term will
come a change in approach by law-enforcement authorities.
pretty much aware of the fact that even if they
dont propose violence themselves, a number
of our local folks are not that far removed from
people who advocate violence against clinics.
Paul Drisgula, co-president and chief executive
of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson
Photo by Teri Currie
workers will point out that if it was terrorism for someone
to send anthrax spores through the U.S. Postal Service in
the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, then
it is no less terrorism for someone to send a white powder
intended to look like anthrax to specific addresses that
happen to also be the locations of reproductive-health clinics.
is very important that law enforcement takes violence against
abortion providers seriously—labels it domestic terrorism,”
says Saporta of the National Abortion Federation. “I think
that they are doing better, but I still think there needs
to be more done to uncover the network of violence that
regularly aids and abets.”
When asked what federal authorities could do differently
or better in their efforts against anti-abortion extremists,
Drisgula of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson says, “I think
they need to pursue domestic terrorists the way they’ve
pursued Al Qaeda terrorists. And they need to send the same
message that there will be zero tolerance.
mean, we’ve put up within our movement for years with bombings,
intimidation and murder, and felt that federal authorities—while
they took each incident seriously—never took the string
of incidents seriously and never tried to make a connection
about the perpetrators.”
Drisgula takes hope in his belief that the country as a
whole is less willing to accept domestic terrorism—whatever
its target—since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Saporta says that federal authorities “have improved their
law-enforcement response considerably” and that the improved
response has continued, even during the tenure of decidedly
anti- abortion Attorney General John Ashcroft. Her organization
pressed Ashcroft to make a statement labeling the practice
of sending express-delivery fake anthrax samples to clinics
as terrorism, and eventually, albeit with some prodding,
Ashcroft did just that.
Now, Saporta is pressing for the federal government to respond
before another shooting or bombing or stabbing occurs at
I would like to be able to prevent these incidents,” she
says. “I think it very likely that we’ll have another assassin
recruited, and the FBI needs to be trying to find out who
it is and stopping it before it happens. We’re dealing with
domestic terrorists, and they need to be treated as such.”
There is little doubt that James Kopp had help in escaping
the country after he murdered Slepian. Authorities have
always believed that someone drove a getaway car parked
near the Slepian home, but they have never positively identified
the driver. Investigators are confident that a network of
sympathizers sheltered Kopp along the way, may well have
believed or hoped that he would kill a doctor, and may have
known he was finally going underground for good because
he had done something far more serious than lock himself
to a chain-link fence.
But authorities have not yet proven that Kopp’s wide circle
of contacts among the fringe extremists of the anti-abortion
movement knew that they were helping someone plan a murder,
or flee the country after he committed it. The only people
charged in connection with his case are the New York City
couple, Marra and Malvasi, and they have yet to be tried.
So for now—frustrated but refusing to be intimidated—abortion-services
workers are quietly ratcheting up their precautions, waiting
and hoping that their fears are proven wrong.
One thing they are sure of: The extremist anti-abortion
movement is still here, though it may have changed tactics.
The days of the massive, threatening demonstrations may
be part of the past. But the movement that created that
phenomenon of those demonstrations and gave James Kopp his
earliest training has not gone away. It has just gone further
people do not operate alone, and they do have a support
network, and they are able to obtain money and they are
able to obtain food,” says Neitlich of Planned Parenthood
in Buffalo. “And we do associate them with terrorism, because
they adhere to the mindset of terrorists: They have a willingness
to die for their cause.”