August 2, 1954
"I am innocent. I want my innocence recognized as soon as possible."
I n the autumn of 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian had just returned from a prayer service for his dead father and was standing in the kitchen of his home in Amherst, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. A bullet smashed through the window and hit him in the back, killing him.
Within three days, police were looking for a well-known antiabortion protester named James Kopp, who had the nickname "Atomic Dog" among other antiabortion activists. Police said that Kopp's car, a 1987 black Chevrolet Cavalier, had been seen in Dr. Slepian's neighborhood; it was found in a parking lot at the Newark, New Jersey, airport a few days later. Later, investigators found a rifle buried near the murder scene as well as hairs that matched Kopp's.
Despite these police accusations and charges by Canadian officials in connection with the shootings of other abortion providers, others in the antiabortion movement insisted that Kopp could not be a murderer. They described him as a devout Catholic, committed to nonviolence, whose bad eye-sight meant he could not fire a rifle accurately.
The story of Kopp's pursuit and arrest highlighted the development of the antiabortion movement over the previous decade. It had consistently lost legal challenges to abortion (the medical termination of a pregnancy that antiabortion advocates view as a form of infanticide, or baby killing) and became more desperate in its efforts to stop abortions from being performed. With Kopp, that desperation may have eventually led to murder.
Terrorism and abortion
Abortion has long been a highly emotional topic. For people who believe abortion should be legal, it is about a woman's right to control her own body. For people who want it outlawed, it is about the sacredness of life and preventing "baby killing." It is an issue that has been fought bitterly in the courts, in elections, and in the streets.
Once outlawed almost everywhere in the United States, abortion gradually became legal in all states. In 1973, in a case called Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of women to obtain abortions on demand. That decision, and the fact that public opinion had gradually shifted to support the right to an abortion, forced abortion opponents into the role of protesters. (Despite court decisions declaring abortion to be legal, some religious organizations—especially the Roman Catholic Church—have always considered abortion immoral and wrong.)
Words to Know
- the act of ending a pregnancy by removing the fertilized egg from a woman's uterus.
- an infectious disease that can be fatal unless a person gets treatment soon after he or she has been exposed.
- a person who believes there is no God.
- a developing unborn baby in the mother's uterus.
- baby killing.
- an often fatal disease affecting the blood, which causes an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells.
- a severe disturbance of the brain's functioning that can sometimes be treated with drugs.
Various means of opposing abortion developed over the two decades following the Roe v. Wade decision and eventually came to include violence as a means of discouraging doctors from performing abortions and pregnant women from having abortions. Terrorist tactics used in the name of antiabortionism have included bombing clinics, sending envelopes containing white powder that was claimed to be anthrax (an infectious disease that can be fatal unless a person gets treatment soon after he or she has been exposed), and murdering abortion providers.
Born in Pasadena, California, in 1954, Kopp was the son of a corporate lawyer and a licensed nurse. He grew up in the suburbs of Marin County, north of San Francisco. His father, Charles Kopp, was a former lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, seemingly gentle and straight-laced, but also prone to heavy drinking and strict discipline. For college, Kopp chose the University of California at Santa Cruz, a campus that was only a couple of hours from his parents' home. There, he lived in an off-campus apartment with his girlfriend. After graduating in 1976, he enrolled at California State University at Fullerton and earned a master's degree in biology in 1982.
Kopp considered several careers. He thought of following his father's footsteps and becoming a lawyer, or a doctor. But eventually he turned to religion. In the 1980s Kopp underwent a series of experiences that challenged his orderly childhood. His sister Mary, who suffered from schizophrenia (a severe disturbance of the brain's functioning that can sometimes be treated with drugs) and leukemia (an often fatal disease affecting the blood, which causes an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells), died at age twenty-one. Kopp then discovered that for years his father had been having an affair with a woman in Dallas, Texas, who thought he was divorced. Within a year, his parents divorced and his father married his lover. Kopp found out about his father's remarriage through an announcement delivered in the mail. A year after the wedding, Kopp's father suffered a stroke.
Adopting a religious life
Even before the divorce, abortion had been a topic of discussion in the Kopp family. Kopp, his sister Anne, and his mother, Nancy, argued that abortion was murder. Kopp's twin brother Walt, his sister Mary, and their father thought a woman had the right to choose whether to bear a child. The argument within the family reflected a division along religious beliefs: Kopp, his mother, and Anne were devout Christians, while Mary was an atheist (a person who believes there is no God) and Walt gave money to an organization that helped finance birth control, including abortion.
But perhaps the biggest blow to Kopp was dealt by his girlfriend Jennifer. According to his father's second wife, Jennifer became pregnant and had an abortion before breaking up with Kopp. It was a terrible blow, partly because, as the father, he felt he should have been consulted, according to his stepmother.
Kopp had long been a Christian, like his mother. Faced with the need to make a career choice after earning his master's degree in biology, he decided to pursue religion more seriously. The subject of abortion was to play a central role. Not only had Kopp's personal life been deeply affected by the subject, but the mid-1980s was a period when the national debate over abortion was beginning to heat up.
The Nuremberg Files
The Nuremberg Files was a Web site established by Neil Horsley, an extreme opponent of abortion, on the Internet. It consisted of "wanted posters" of abortion providers, along with gory photographs of aborted fetuses.
More threateningly, the database listed the home and office addresses of abortion providers, along with other personal information. Some names appeared with lines drawn through them: these are people who have been murdered, apparently by abortion foes.
The Nuremberg Files came under intense criticism and was forced off the Internet several times. American Internet service providers refused to rent space to the site. It was eventually moved to a computer located in South Africa. In the spring of 2001, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the database had a right to exist under the First Amendment to the Constitution (which guarantees freedom of speech). The Appeals Court also overturned a lower-court ruling that ordered the database's maintainers to pay more than $100 million to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provided women with birth control methods, including abortion, and other groups that it had targeted.
The abortion debate
Abortion is the act of ending a pregnancy. Normally, a male sperm cell combines with an egg in a woman's uterus (sometimes called a womb) to begin the process of creating a new human being. The process starts with a single fertilized egg, which then begins dividing over and over again and forming organs. Nine months later, what started as a single cell has grown into a fetus that emerges from the uterus as a living baby. An abortion interrupts this process by removing the fertilized egg, which is called by different names as the pregnancy advances.
The debate over abortion is whether a woman should be allowed to have the fertilized egg removed from her uterus. Defenders of abortion believe each woman should be able to decide whether she wants to have a child. Opponents of abortion believe that a new human being has been created as soon as a woman's egg is fertilized by the man's sperm, and that from that moment, the fertilized egg deserves the same protection as any other person. This is often called the "moment of conception" in the debate over abortion.
The underlying question is: at what point does a fetus become a human being? Opinions differ. Some believe that a new human exists from the moment of fertilization; some, at the other end of the range, believe life does not begin until a baby is born. Many people believe it takes place somewhere between the two extremes.
To those like Kopp, who believe that life begins at conception, an abortion is the same as murdering a tiny, helpless human being. Anyone who would help in this process is guilty of murdering a baby, a phrase that can create a strong emotional reaction.
The path of an abortion opponent
In 1984 Kopp helped found a "pregnancy crisis center" in San Francisco. There, young women could come in and be tested to determine whether they were pregnant, and to receive counseling if they were. The counseling included showing them photographs of aborted fetuses to discourage them from getting abortions. It was a common technique for abortion opponents, but it seemed to some people that at some level Kopp just wanted to talk to women like his former girlfriend to keep them from getting an abortion.
Two years later Kopp got in touch with an antiabortion activist named Joan Andrews, who had been sent to jail in Florida for entering an abortion clinic and destroying the equipment used to perform abortions. Andrews had been sentenced to an unusually long term—five years in prison—and was held in solitary confinement for forty days as punishment for not cooperating with prison authorities.
Kopp traveled to Pensacola, Florida, in 1986. There he joined a group of activists trying to rouse public opinion against abortion by staging demonstrations and blocking the entrances to abortion clinics. Kopp was arrested for using a truck to block access to an abortion clinic. It was a time in the national debate over abortion when activists like Kopp were trying to attract support by breaking the law.
Collectively, these activists were known as the Rescue Movement, meaning they intended to "rescue" fetuses in danger of being aborted. The activists in this movement disagreed on what tactics to use. Some believed in using only nonviolent tactics. Others—Kopp among them—blocked the entrances to abortion clinics or chained themselves to the doors. A few activists went as far as bombing abortion clinics.
During this period, Kopp's own views were apparently still developing. Although he had been raised as a Protestant, in the mid-1980s he converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1986 he spent six months living in a facility near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in New York operated by the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order founded by Roman Catholic nun Mother Teresa (1910–1997). There, he started work at 4:30 a.m. to help feed the homeless and drug addicts, and then spent hours in meditation. He owned just three changes of clothes, which he washed in a bucket (the religious order banned the use of appliances).
By the time he left the Missionaries of Charity, Kopp's life was thoroughly linked to the battle against legal abortion.
In 1988 Kopp joined a group called Operation Rescue, with headquarters in Binghamton, New York, a faded industrial city northwest of New York City. The organization took its inspiration from a passage in the Bible, Proverbs 24:11: "Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter." Its goal was to "rescue" fetuses from abortion by blocking abortion clinics.
Kopp worked with Catholic churches to organize protests at abortion clinics, and he specialized in designing the locks and chains used by activists in their efforts to block access to the clinics. Demonstrators used Kopp's designs to chain themselves to the doors, forcing police to spend hours cutting them off and effectively closing the facilities for an entire day. Kopp was given the nickname "Atomic Dog" by the other people in the movement.
But despite the efforts of Operation Rescue and similar groups, abortion opponents steadily lost ground in the courts. They also lost ground in the court of public opinion, as more people in the country supported legal abortion. These setbacks seemed simply to add to their determination.
Although Operation Rescue officially preached nonviolence, some abortion opponents were beginning to turn to violence to stop what they saw as acts of murder.
Lambs of Christ
In 1988 a virtual army of antiabortionists turned out to protest at the Democratic Party's convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Police arrested more than a thousand of them for trying to disrupt the political convention. Protesters were later quoted as saying the Atlanta turnout had a feeling similar to the civil rights protests during the 1960s, during which Americans of all walks of life demonstrated for the equal rights of African Americans: a rising tide of people on the right side of an issue that was gaining strength. Expectations were high that the aging Supreme Court justices who supported abortion rights would retire and be replaced by Republican-nominated judges who, conservative and traditional, would reverse the Court's position on abortion. Among the protesters jailed in Atlanta, there was a sense of camaraderie, a spirit of good fellowship among people engaged in the same cause. And in this group, Kopp was considered a respected and experienced veteran of the movement.
One outcome of the Atlanta protest was the founding of a new antiabortion group, the Lambs of Christ, by Reverend Norman Weslin, a former military officer turned clergyman. In some respects, Weslin resembled Kopp's father: a strict man who did not welcome disagreement or argument. He insisted that members of the Lambs "submit themselves totally and completely to the Lamb concept, which places a shepherd in charge. And that shepherd calls all the shots." On another occasion, Weslin told a journalist: "Unless you understand that this is a colossal war between Jesus Christ and Satan, you don't understand what we are doing."
In 1990 Kopp took part in a "lock and block" protest in Burlington, Vermont, as a member of the Lambs of Christ. He was sentenced to spend fifty-one days in jail by Judge Matthew Katz, along with about one hundred other protesters. Later, Katz's name appeared on an Internet Web site called the Nuremberg Files that targeted abortion providers and other people who supported a woman's right to an abortion (see box on page 174).
Afterward, Kopp began living in a farmhouse near St. Albans, Vermont, owned by a fellow antiabortion activist, Anthony Kenny. Kopp registered two cars at Kenny's house, including a 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier.
In June 1992 the antiabortion movement suffered a serious blow. Conservative, Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices joined the more liberal (progressive) judges on the Court in upholding a woman's right to an abortion. The sense of victory that the protesters at the 1988 Atlanta protest had enjoyed was shattered. To make matters worse for the movement, at about the same time the federal government began going after abortion protesters in court, including the leader of Operation Rescue. Fearful of being forced to pay enormous fines, many of the more militant antiabortionists dropped out. So, too, did public support by well-known figures like conservative Christian leader Jerry Fal-well (1933–), some of whom feared becoming involved in government actions against abortion foes.
Many antiabortion activists reacted to the legal setback in the Supreme Court and the government's prosecutions by dropping out of the movement and returning to a more ordinary life. But not Kopp.
Along with a small group of others, he tried to continue the crusade. He took his activities to Europe and the Philippines. There is evidence that he associated with another antiabortion group, Missionaries to the Preborn, whose address he gave on a Wisconsin driver's license application. Some members of the Missionaries have supported the use of firearms to stop abortion providers.
In 1992 Kopp's father died of a heart attack. Two years later, his mother also died. She had been the person to whom Kopp was closest and an important source of financial support. The same year Nancy Kopp died, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act became law, guaranteeing women access to abortion clinics. It was a direct blow against Kopp's tactics, and it threatened him with federal prosecution if he continued his work.
Even before the act passed, however, evidence was emerging that the antiabortion movement was beginning to embrace violence. At a 1993 demonstration in Pensacola, one protester pulled out a gun and murdered a doctor at the clinic. Later in 1993, another protester shot and wounded a doctor in Wichita, Kansas. In 1994, a protester killed another abortion doctor in Pensacola, who had replaced the physician murdered the year before. In Brookline, Massachusetts, a man armed with an automatic rifle killed two workers and wounded five others at two abortion clinics in December 1994.
The campaign also moved to Canada. In November 1994, a abortion doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia, was shot in the leg with a rifle fired through a window of his house. In 1995 another doctor was shot and wounded in Ancaster, Ontario, and in 1997 a Winnipeg doctor was shot in the chest, seriously injuring him.
On October 23, 1998, Slepian was murdered while standing in his kitchen. A sniper with a rifle shot the doctor through his kitchen window, the same technique that had been used four years earlier in Vancouver.
Three days later, the police began hunting for Kopp.
For two and a half years, the trail seemed to grow cold. Then, suddenly, on March 2, 2001, French police swooped down on the post office in the small French town of Dinan and arrested a man who had just picked up an envelope sent to him from New York. It was James Kopp, and the French police were acting at the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The FBI said it had traced Kopp to Ireland, where he had lived after fleeing the United States. Authorities had monitored Internet activity, including messages sent to Kopp from a man and woman in Brooklyn, New York, who had supported him and were preparing to provide Kopp with shelter upon his return.
Kopp remained in custody in France for over a year. French authorities would not extradite Kopp, or send him back to the United States, as long as he faced the prospect of capital punishment, or being put to death, as a result of being accused of killing Dr. Barnett Slepian. Finally, federal and state authorities agreed to charge Kopp with crimes that did not carry the death penalty, and he was flown to the United States under arrest in June 2002. He was charged with the federal crime of using deadly force to interfere with the right to abortion, and with the state crime of second degree murder.
For More Information
Risen, James, and Judy L. Thomas. Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. New York: Basic Books, 1998.
Solinger, Rickie, editor. Abortion Wars: A Half-Century of Struggle, 1950–2000. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998.
Terry, Randall A. Operation Rescue. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1988.
Tribe, Laurence H. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. New York: Norton, 1990.
"Captured: After a Two-year Overseas Manhunt, Police in France Seize a Suspect in the Sniper Murder of a Buffalo, New York, Doctor Targeted by Antiabortion Radicals." People Weekly, April 16, 2001, p. 62.
Offley, Will. "The Furtive Alliance between the Catholic Church and the Advocates of Anti-Abortion Terrorism." Canadian Dimension, November, 2000, p. 35.
Samuels, David. "The Making of a Fugitive." New York Times Magazine, March 21, 1999, p. 46.