Lowney, Shannon (1969–1994)

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Lowney, Shannon (1969–1994)

American advocate for women's reproductive rights and prevention of child abuse until her murder by an anti-abortion-rights activist. Pronunciation: LAUW-nee. Born Shannon Elizabeth Lowney on July 7, 1969, in Norwalk, Connecticut; murdered at Planned Parenthood Clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, on December 30, 1994; daughter of Joan (Manning) Lowney (an elementary school music teacher) and William T. Lowney (a middle school history teacher); Boston College, B.A. in history (Magna Cum Laude), 1991; never married; no children.

Studied in Madrid, Spain (1990); as youth counselor volunteer at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, tutored immigrating Central American teenagers in English (1990–91); was a Spanish translator for English-speaking volunteer work project in Ecuador (January 1991); worked as the flow coordinator and phone counselor at the Planned Parenthood Clinic of Greater Boston (1992–93); served as a child abuse prevention educator at Advocates for Children in Androscoggin County, Maine (1993–94); returned to Boston (fall 1994) to pursue a master's degree in Social Work; worked as receptionist at Planned Parenthood Clinic.

On the morning of Friday, December 30, 1994, Shannon Lowney proceeded through anti-abortion-rights demonstrators outside the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, to start her work day. For the next two hours, she welcomed clients and assisted Spanish-speaking women to help them obtain services. A young man approached her desk and asked, "Is this Planned Parenthood?" She smiled and told him that it was; he pulled out a rifle and shot her several times in the throat. The man continued to fire in her direction, shooting an employee who stood behind her, and then turned and fired at clients and visitors seated in the waiting room.

Nichols, Lee Ann (c. 1956–1994)

American social worker. Born in North Olmsted, Ohio, around 1956; murdered in Brookline, Massachusetts, on December 30, 1994; daughter of Ruth Nichols; engaged to Edward McDonough.

Responding to what sounded like firecrackers, clinic employees ran toward the front office. They saw Lowney stand up at her desk, turn and walk toward them. She motioned with her arms to a nurse but was unable to speak; then she fell to the floor, bleeding from her neck. When medical personnel could not stop the bleeding, the doctor and nurses moved on to help those whose lives might be saved. During the panic, the gunman fled to Preterm, another clinic a few blocks away which also performed abortion services. He entered and shot employees and clients there too, fatally wounding the receptionist, 38-year-old Lee Ann Nichols . Seven people in total were shot, and all but Lowney were rushed to the hospital. Shannon Lowney died where she had fallen.

Shannon Lowney was only three years old in 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the "right of privacy … founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty … is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy." In her young adult years, she learned that before abortions became legal clergy members and women's advocates developed an underground system to connect women with practitioners who could terminate unwanted pregnancies. She learned that during these years many women died from unsafe, botched abortions in private homes and back alleys. Too, she learned that though women seeking abortions now had protection under the law, women's advocates still had to fight hard to ensure that any woman could exercise her right to a safe and legal abortion. In the 1990s, the shootings in Brookline whick took Lowney's life were evidence that the war being waged by determined groups against a woman's right to choose abortion had reached a new level of crisis and tragedy.

The middle of three children, Lowney was born on July 7, 1969, to William and Joan Lowney . She spoke in almost complete sentences before she could walk and early showed a love of reading. Shannon and her siblings, Meghan and Liam, were fifth-generation Irish Americans. The family camped for recreation, including summer vacations at Martha's Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. With the encouragement of her mother, an elementary-school music teacher, Lowney learned to play the french horn and piano. She was chosen to perform with statewide student groups and traveled to Europe twice with amateur orchestras. Through music and academic studies, she developed strong self-discipline. During high school (1983–87), she played sports, belonged to many school clubs, while consistently earning high academic honors.

She also became increasingly intrigued by history. Interested particularly in both women's historical and contemporary roles in society, she eventually identified herself as an advocate for women's rights and maintained a desire to develop ideas through discussion, examining the connection between history and current events. Lowney's understanding of the oppression of women in world history led her to also identify with the oppression of animals, and she became a vegetarian. She spoke eloquently about the ethical and philosophical issues of subjugation. Later in life, Lowney would credit her family with her "love of education," "reverence for learning," and "dedication to social justice."

In the fall of 1987, she enrolled at Boston College, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where she studied history and Spanish, focusing on South American history, anthropological and philosophical issues, and women's role in history. Friends knew her to be a frequent and passionate debater of philosophy and ethics, whose arguments were informed by the lessons of history and a strong sense of "what's right." Inspired by a class with the renowned feminist author Mary Daly during her junior year, Lowney organized a campus debate regarding abortion rights with professors of differing perspectives. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, family planning clinics had been providing affordable, accessible and safe abortions despite increased attacks against individuals and clinics by anti-choice/ pro-life groups. Lowney believed that every woman had the right to make decisions about her own body and life. She also valued, however, each individual's right to their own opinion about the controversial issue.

For Lowney, change through action was equally as important as discussion. She took a class on the development of racism and wrote in her journal, "I am tired of people afraid to rock the boat, afraid to think that they too might have an element of prejudice about them." Aware that the history she was taught in school was limited to a white, European male perspective which excluded women and ethnic minorities, she wrote: "Half a history is no history at all." She also considered the role of violence in history:

I cannot get over the futility of violence in any other context than direct self-defense…. What I do not understand is how violence can bring about change in the mind of someone on the other side of a … dispute…. Hate is a destructive force in and of itself. The "hater" is making a choice to deprive him or herself of love and understanding. S/he is choosing to remain in ignorance and darkness and it is HER/HIS CHOICE.

For a semester in January 1990, Lowney studied in Madrid, Spain, while living in the home of a Spanish family. In her journal, she admired "the beauty of the cities and country … the old traditional buildings, the friendliness of people … the culture…. Smiles are like breaths here—they come without thought." She was disturbed, though, by the attitude of men toward women in Madrid despite reminders to herself to "keep an open mind." Following a walk during which she was whistled and heckled by men, she wrote, "I was angry that the men here think that they have that power over our bodies."

The following year, in January 1991, Lowney traveled to Ecuador with a college group. She worked and lived for ten days in the barrio of Duran, across the Rio Guayas from Guayaquil, and spent time with children who thrived "regardless of their extreme poverty." She was shocked when they ate ant-infested candy the students had thrown away. Overwhelmed with sadness, Lowney was enraged by her own inability to make any lasting improvement in the quality of their lives:

My trip to Ecuador over Christmas break shattered the idealized image I had about the poor…. Spending this time in the heat and the stench of the garbage dump that these desperate families call their home, I realized there is nothing beautiful or pure about poverty…. Their experience is disgusting and degrading and no human should have to spend their limited days here on earth in such hell.

Lowney graduated in the top of her class in 1991 and began to look for employment. She continued waitressing, as she had done through college, until she was hired by Planned Parenthood as a phone counselor. A bilingual resource for Spanish clients, she often translated agency and medical procedures for them. Concerned that poor women had few medical options, Lowney was proud to be part of a team working to make health services available to all women. She worked at Planned Parenthood for a year, experiencing firsthand the effect of the abortionrights debate.

With the Roe v. Wade decision, the Catholic Church and other groups had begun to organize to try to eliminate legal abortion, employing legal strategies to change the law and influence legislators. Some groups also used aggressive tactics that threatened clinics and the lives of doctors who performed pregnancy terminations. Clinics became targets. Demonstrations outside clinics became a common practice for such groups as Operation Rescue whose members claimed to counsel women going into the clinics to decide against abortions. To reach the clinic doors, clinic staff and clients were forced to make their way through groups of confrontational protesters. Lowney regularly passed through shouting demonstrators, one of whom, in frequent attendance outside her clinic, screamed epithets at her such as "Public Enemy Number One." At first Lowney talked to the demonstrators, trying to engage them in discussion; eventually, however, she became frustrated by what she saw as a lack of willingness to respect her different beliefs. Meanwhile, there were increased threats to clinics nationwide. Then, in March 1993, Dr. David Gunn was killed outside a Florida clinic where he worked.

The killing was condoned by a some in the anti-abortion movement. In August, Dr. Gunn's former co-worker, Dr. Wayne Patterson, was murdered. Dr. George Tiller was shot and wounded later that month. Aware of the risks, and cautious as a result of these shootings, Lowney was not afraid to return to work.

In 1993, she left Planned Parenthood temporarily to move with her boyfriend, David Keene, to Maine where he had become employed. There she worked as an educator at Advocates for Children, an agency which focused on child abuse prevention and youth empowerment. She instructed children and teens on conflict resolution techniques and taught them about their right to choose safety. Lowney's work in helping children to remove themselves from abusive situations led her to consider a degree in social work.

Upon her return to Boston in 1994, she rejoined the Planned Parenthood Clinic and submitted applications for schools of social work. Clinic harassment had escalated in her absence; more clinics were being torched, bombed, and vandalized. Death threats to abortion providers had increased. President Bill Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in May 1994, prohibiting the use of force, threats, or physical obstruction to interfere with a person trying to enter an abortion clinic. In July 1994, Dr. Bayard Britton and clinic escort James Barrett were killed.

That Christmas, Lowney spent the holidays with her family in Connecticut. On Friday morning, December 30, she returned to work to welcome those who needed Planned Parenthood, determined to provide a smile and assistance to the clients who made it past the shrill demonstrators outside. Just recovering from a cold, she wore a new dress, perhaps to help her feel better. By 11:00 am, she was dead.

The man who murdered Lowney, John Salvi III, was apprehended within two days when he shot at the windows of a Virginia family-planning clinic. His religious beliefs, similar to those of the men who had previously murdered other clinic personnel, were the basis for his opposition to abortion. He had attended protest gatherings, including at least one outside the Brookline clinic where Lowney worked. In March 1996, he was tried and convicted for the murders of Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, and for the assault on the lives of five others.

These murders and assaults were mourned nationally. Most anti-abortion rights groups did not condone Salvi's actions, but a few did. Clinics throughout the country braced for attacks and installed expensive equipment to protect clients and staff. The events caused discussion about the level of violence surrounding this issue of choice and prompted President Clinton to order U.S. Attorneys to create task forces to improve security for providers. Many pro-choice advocates called for an end to the violence and increased security through legislation. They also advocated for the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of RU486, a medicine that nonsurgically ends pregnancy. Available through private doctors, RU486 might help diffuse the focus and potential violence of anti-choice demonstrators away from clinics. Meanwhile, anti-choice activists advocated for their right to free speech.

The concept of freedom and choice resonated strongly with Lowney. She considered her responsibility to a larger community with every choice she made. She encouraged others to make important decisions for themselves, to exercise their basic human rights. At the age of 25, she died violently, in a way that opposed everything for which she had lived. "Doesn't anyone take responsibility for their choices anymore?" she had written. "Somebody make some decisions, some choices, some change."


The Boston Women's Health Book Collective. The New Our Bodies Ourselves. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp. 353–385.

Colker, Ruth. Abortion & Dialogue. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Monagle, Katie. "How We Got Here," in Ms. May–June, 1995, pp. 54–57.

Personal writings of Shannon Lowney, personal stories as related by family, friends, and author's own.

suggested reading:

Boston Globe. December 31, 1994, and January 1, 1995, p. 1.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father. Boston: Beacon Press, 1973.

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Dworkin, Andrea. Right-Wing Women. NY: Perigee Books, 1983.

"The Killing Field," in People Weekly. January 16, 1995, pp. 40–43.

related media:

"Murder on Abortion Row," written and directed by John Zaritsky, produced by Virginia Storring , aired on PBS on February 6, 1996.

Meghan K. Lowney , M.S.W., and sister of Shannon Lowney, Branford, Connecticut