As the United States Supreme Court reviews Buffer Zone laws around healthcare clinics today, let’s take a moment to remember one of the worst moments in the fight for women’s reproductive autonomy.
On December 30, 1994, I was working late at Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York as part of a unit investigating, among other things, the violent, criminal element of the anti-abortion movement. That’s when I got the news that there had been a mass shooting at one of our clinics. A man had walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, and killed receptionist Shannon Lowney and wounding three other clinic workers with a 22 caliber rifle. He then went to another nearby clinic, Pre-term Health Services, killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols and wounding two other clinic workers. He had apparently been prepared to do much more because he dropped a second gun and 700 rounds of ammunition in his flight after a security guard returned fire at PreTerm.
It was the worst episode in a time of fierce anti-abortion violence in the U.S. and Canada, including a series of murders and attempted murders, hundreds of assaults, bombings and arsons, hundreds of bomb threats, and more. The previous year, federal agents had unearthed the Army of God Manual – a field guide to how to do arsons, bombings, chemical attacks, and clinic invasions.
Police soon identified the shooter as John Salvi III, who was captured a few days later while firing at the Hillcrest clinic in Norfolk, VA. When he was captured, he had the name and unlisted phone number of Donald Spitz, a local anti-abortion activist who was also the spokesman for the underground Army of God. (Many of those who have been convicted of violent crimes related to abortion were, and remain, publicly associated with the Army of God. Salvi was later convicted of the murders and committed suicide while in prison.
Salvi is still celebrated as a Hero of the Faith on the Army of God web site.
In 1996, PRA published an extensive examination of violence against abortion clinics, and the emerging conspiracism in the Catholic Right. Here’s a small excerpt from that publication:
Most of the news coverage of John C. Salvi 3d has portrayed him as a confused person making nonsensical statements alleging conspiracies against Catholics. In fact, almost all of Salvi’s conspiratorial statements echo paranoid scapegoating theories long circulated by a specific sector of right wing anti-abortion organizations active in the Boston area and nationwide. Some of these aggressive anti-abortion groups call abortion providers evil and claim to be fighting an “abortion Holocaust.” A few of these anti-abortion militants suggest that abortion providers deserve death.
While Salvi clearly shows signs of emotional disturbance, his view of himself as a crusader against an evil conspiracy is rooted in the small but militant wings of the Catholic and Protestant anti-abortion movements. Even though Salvi has been found guilty in the Brookline, Massachusetts clinic shootings that left two women dead and several persons injured, it is still difficult for many people to see the political side of the Salvi case. There is still a widespread lack of knowledge about the beliefs of the right wing conspiracist subculture-and there is still an attitude of denial that groups promoting conspiratorial worldviews have growing influence in our political system. This aspect of the Salvi case has not been adequately covered by the news media.
Before his arrest Salvi met with a Catholic priest and demanded to distribute lurid photographs of aborted fetuses, charging that the Catholic Church was not doing enough to stop abortions. He confronted his parish on Christmas Eve 1994 for failing to live up to his interpretation of the Catholic faith and its obligations. He quoted the Biblical book of Revelation; and told his parents of wanting to confront Satan. Shortly after his arrest he released a handwritten note alleging conspiracies of freemasons, conspiracies to manipulate paper currency, and conspiracies against Catholics. He told the court he supported the welfare state, Catholic labor unions, and opposed abortion. He has talked about the Vatican printing its own currency and a specific conspiracy of the Ku Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Mob. Far from being unique, all of these ideas appear in right-wing Catholic, Protestant, and secular political publications available in the Boston area.