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Anti-Abortion Terrorist Faces Execution


Salon, Aug. 28, 2003

Barring the unlikely possibility of a stay, the Presbyterian minister who gunned down an abortion doctor will next week become the first American executed for anti-abortion violence. To a loyal core of admirers, Paul Hill is a martyr-to-be whose actions were justified by the Bible. To others, on both sides of the abortion debate, he is a zealot undeserving of respect or pity. 'In a very significant way, it's a sad day,' said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 'It's sad that people like Paul Hill would murder in the name of life.'

Hill, a 49-year-old father of three, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Wednesday in Florida for the 1994 shotgun slayings of Dr. John Britton and his volunteer escort, retired Air Force officer James Barrett, outside the Pensacola, Florida clinic where Britton performed abortions. Hill wants to die and is not pursuing an appeal. Abortion-rights groups worry that Hill's execution will trigger a backlash by those who share his steadfast belief that violence in defense of unborn children is justified. Several Florida officials connected to the case received threatening letters last week, accompanied by rifle bullets.

'We need to take these threats seriously,' said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. Though Hill still has supporters - they have maintained a Web site in his honor, with snapshots and ballads - most major anti-abortion groups have repudiated him. 'We and other pro-life organizations are against violence, period,' said Erik Whittington of the American Life League. 'What he did is definitely not anything that anyone I know of supports.' Tom Glessner, director of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, said Hill deserves the death penalty. 'He's not a pro-lifer, as far as I'm concerned,' Glessner said. 'Osama bin Laden acted out of conviction too.'

However, the Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, Maryland, the author of a book that justifies the killing of abortion doctors, said Hill 'will be recognized after the fact as the honorable man that he is.' Organizations opposed to capital punishment have urged Gov. Jeb Bush to spare Hill. 'The death penalty gives this individual the opportunity for martyrdom,' said Diana Rust-Tierney, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project. 'Far from deterring the kind of violence we deplore, it may be an encouragement.' The governor is unswayed: 'No threats, no free advice from others will change my obligation to do what I think is right.'

The murders of Britton and Barrett came during a bloody surge of anti-abortion violence a decade ago. Two abortion doctors were killed in Pensacola in 1993, one by an unknown shooter and the other by Michael Griffin, who is serving a life sentence. Two receptionists were killed at Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994 by John Salvi, who committed suicide in prison two years later. Earlier this year, James Kopp was convicted of killing a Buffalo, N.Y. abortion doctor in 1998, while fugitive Eric Rudolph was captured and charged with a 1998 bombing that killed an off-duty police officer at an Alabama abortion clinic. As arson, bombings and vandalism at abortion clinics spread during the 1980s and early 1990s, abortion-rights groups complained that law enforcement agencies did not always take such incidents seriously.

'There really has been a change in their attitude,' Saporta said. 'The law enforcement response has been critical to the de-escalation of violence against abortion providers.' However, Feldt said most abortion clinics report continuing harassment and intimidation. Some of Hill's backers liken him to John Brown, the abolitionist hanged for his crimes. One militant anti-abortion group, Missionaries to the Unborn, likens Hill to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor from Germany who was executed after joining the plot to assassinate Hitler. 'The Nazi Holocaust and the American murder of 45 million unborn children did not conquer the spirit of these men,' wrote Joe Pavone. 'Bonhoeffer and Hill laid down their lives gladly for what they believed.'