Cooling-Off Period Urged After Abortion Clinic Killings : Violence: Long-term implications are unclear for both supporters and opponents. Moderates downplay the significance of the slayings.

From Religion News Service

Leaders on both sides of the abortion debate scrambled this week to make sense of the latest violence at U.S. abortion clinics.

Although some leaders see last week’s killing of two clinic workers in Brookline, Mass., as part of an organized and expanding shooting war over abortion, others insist that the alleged killer--22-year-old John Salvi--is simply a troubled man who acted alone.

Either way, the shootings--which killed two receptionists and wounded five other people at two women’s clinics--have led some anti-abortion activists to seek a cooling-off period without the kind of emotion and rhetoric that has typified so much of the abortion debate.

This week, two Roman Catholic prelates--Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Bishop James McHugh of Camden, N.J.--called for temporary moratoriums on demonstrations at abortion clinics. In the past, both clerics have supported peaceful demonstrations and prayer vigils at clinics.


The long-term implications of last week’s shootings remain unclear for the abortion rights and the anti-abortion movements.

Early reaction suggested that the shootings represented a turning point in the fight over abortion rights--one that signaled a shift from a political, moral and intellectual debate to violence.

But many moderates say that overstates the significance of the recent attacks.

“I don’t see this as a watershed, as signifying some new direction in the pro-life movement,” said Helen Alvare, who speaks for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Church’s opposition to abortion.


“This act is less about abortion than about violence, about how we lose people living on the edge,” she said.

Abortion opponent Richard Land, executive director of the Southern Baptist Commission’s Christian Life Commission, said the latest round of violence was “probably only incidentally about abortion.”

“I don’t think it is a watershed moment,” he said of the killings. A more significant event, he said, was the Nov. 8 congressional election, which resulted in what he called “a pro-life victory of sweeping and historic proportion.”

The Brookline shootings drew a “more visceral” public reaction than past attacks on abortion clinics because they took the lives of receptionists rather than doctors who perform abortions, Land said.


Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, an independent abortion rights group not affiliated with the Catholic Church, agreed with Alvare and Land on the random nature of the Brookline shootings.

“These acts of violence are ultimately and primarily individual,” she said. “They do not have a lot of bearing on what’s going on in the wider anti-abortion movement.”

Still, Kissling said she sees a connection between the Brookline killings and the rhetoric of anti-abortion activists.

“When you have a 20-year history of a significant number of anti-abortion leaders saying that there is no moral or spiritual distinction between a fetus and a living person, there is an effect on the psyche of the country.


“That kind of logic . . . provides a justification . . . for deranged people acting on a whole range of frustrations,” Kissling said. “It gives them grounding for their random acts of rage.”