This Day in Jewish History / A Reluctant but Pragmatic Abortion Doctor Is Murdered

Dr. Barnett Slepian pointed out that the world isn’t perfect, and in a perfect irony, was slaughtered by a pro-lifer who denied intent to kill.

On October 23, 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist who also provided abortions at a clinic in Buffalo, New York, was shot dead as he stood in the kitchen of his home in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst.

It was a Friday, and Dr. Slepian had just returned home from his synagogue, Temple Beth Am, where he was commemorating his father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of his death). That same morning, Slepian, who together with colleagues at the women’s clinic was constantly being threatened by extremists in the anti-abortion movement, had received a warning from the clinic that read: ‘’Do not assume that you are safe once you are at home. Close the drapes in your house so you are not visible from outside.’’ Evidently he didn’t.

Slepian was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on April 23, 1946. He grew up in a dysfunctional family, with parents descended from Jewish immigrants from Russia. According to an article his niece Amanda Robb wrote in New York magazine in 2003, Slepian’s father was a Harvard graduate who worked in the leather-bits business before declaring bankruptcy; his mother was a petty thief who embezzled funds from her Hadassah chapter.

Slepian attended the University of Denver, and when he wasn’t accepted to medical school in the United States, he attended medical school in Belgium and later in Guadalajara, Mexico. He only graduated in 1978, twelve years after beginning college. One reason his education took so long, according to Robb, is that after her father died and her pregnant mother – Slepian’s sister – fell into despair, he came to live with them in Nevada, “and browbeat my broken mother into functionality.” Her Uncle Bart, she wrote, “taught me how to love.”

He did his obstetrics-gynecology residency at the State University of New York, and remained in the area, opening a private office in Amherst and also working at the Buffalo women’s clinic.

Ambivalent about abortion

Slepian was ambivalent about performing abortions. In a speech he gave shortly before his murder to a group called Medical Students for Choice, he felt compelled to stress, “Abortion is the killing of potential life. It is not pretty. It is not easy. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary.”

At the same time, he felt it important to keep affordable abortions available to working women, and as extremists in the pro-life movement became increasingly violent in their actions (Slepian was the seventh American to be killed for providing abortions), and fewer medical personnel were willing to take the risks that providing the procedure entailed, Slepian became more stubborn about continuing to work at the Buffalo clinic.

The person who shot a single, fatal bullet at Slepian that Sabbath evening in 1998 was James Charles Kopp, a 44-year-old convert to Roman Catholicism and a member of a militant anti-abortion group called “The Lambs of Christ.” His statements both to the press (Robb interviewed him at length) and in court during his trial reflected a highly intelligent but severely disturbed individual. He fled the United States after the killing, and was apprehended only in 2001 in France. In 2003, in a non-jury trial, he was found guilty of second-degree murder. His claim at the trial that he hadn’t meant to kill Slepian (“I aimed at his shoulder. The bullet took a crazy ricochet”) was rejected by Erie County Judge Michael D’Amico, who sentenced Kopp to 25 years to life.

Murderer: Cut holes in ‘death camps’

In a statement he made at the end of his trial, Kopp urged fellow anti-abortion activists to keep up the fight: ‘’I hope that my younger brothers and sisters in the movement know that we can still cut some holes in the fences of the death camps and let a few babies crawl to safety,’’ he said. ‘’We can still derail a few trains.’’

Barnett Slepian was survived by his wife, Lynne, a former nurse, and four sons, two of whom were in the room with him when he was shot. After his death, the Pro-Choice Network of Western New York established a memorial fund in Slepian’s name to pay to train physicians in abortion procedures.