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Slepian's wife a reluctant abortion rights symbol

Lynne E. Slepian was in Washington today to accept an award from a physicians group in memory of her husband, Barnett, who was assassinated by a sniper firing into their East Amherst home in October.

At the same time, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer planned to use Mrs. Slepian's words at a New York City luncheon, when he announces a new unit in his office to guarantee abortion-clinic access for patients, doctors and staff.

And on Wednesday, Mrs. Slepian and her four boys spent about 10 minutes talking with the Clintons and Gores at Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Mrs. Slepian has become a somewhat reluctant symbol -- a victim of domestic terrorism and a lightning rod for those who want to guarantee safe access into abortion clinics and doctors' offices.

She'd rather be caring for her four boys as they try to cope with the loss of their father. But she refuses to back away from the challenge.

"I'm doing only what I have to do to get these laws passed, because I don't want to see anybody else get shot," she said in an interview Thursday. "Nobody should have to go through what our family has gone through. I'd trade it all for a cup of coffee at my kitchen table with Bart.

"I'd trade it all to get my kids back their dad."

This afternoon, on the 26th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision affirming a woman's right to an abortion, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was to honor Mrs. Slepian with a plaque in her husband's memory.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was to be the keynote speaker.

"We believe that the nature of this annual luncheon offers a most fitting and unique opportunity to honor the compassionate work of Dr. Slepian, by the many (people) who recognize his contributions to medicine and women's lives," a letter from the organization stated.

Since Mrs. Slepian can't be in two places at once, Spitzer was to read her strongly worded plea for tougher laws during a National Abortion Rights Action League luncheon at the Harvard Club in New York City.

In her letter to Spitzer, Mrs. Slepian cited the harassment, intimidation and threats against her husband by people who challenge the constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion.

"Abortion is just as much a legal right as the right to vote. If people were threatened or harassed by fanatics when they tried to enter voting booths, or if threats were made against those who operated the voting booths, I'm sure the government would vigorously prosecute the vigilantes, and if that wasn't effective, stronger laws would be enacted; but blocking, harassing and threatening clinic patients, staff and doctors has been treated as minor offenses under state law," Mrs. Slepian's letter stated.

"If the right-to-an-abortion laws were changed by legislatures or courts, Bart would have abided by that; but he refused to let vigilantes eliminate the constitutional right to a safe abortion."

Spitzer announced the formation of the Special Reproductive Rights Unit within the attorney general's Civil Rights Division. That new unit will include attorneys and investigators.

A Spitzer spokesman called it unconscionable and unacceptable that New Yorkers seeking legal medical services -- and the professionals providing them -- are subjected to taunts, harassment, violence and even death.

"This isn't pro-life or pro-choice," Spitzer spokesman Marc Violette said. "It's Eliot Spitzer being pro-law."

As she prepared to leave for Washington, Mrs. Slepian and her sons still were reeling from their face-to-face dealings with the Clintons and Gores on Wednesday.

The four boys -- Andy, 15; Brian, 13; Michael, 10; and Philip, 8 -- chatted with the president and vice president and their wives on the airport tarmac.

"So much has been taken away from the boys in the past few months," their mother said. "This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for them. They felt special. I think it made them realize their father stood for something important."

And what did the family think of President Clinton?

"He was very somber, very concerned," Mrs. Slepian said. "He asked how the boys were doing, how they were coping with everything. He stood around and posed for a lot of pictures with the kids. I really think he's concerned. He took the time out from all his other issues to focus on me and the kids."

Mrs. Slepian was struck by the closeness of the Clintons and Gores, who seem like four good friends who enjoy being together.

"All four of them look you in the eye when they talk to you," she said. "They make you feel important. They make you feel like your problems matter."

Mrs. Slepian said she still can't make any sense out of the assassination that occurred three months ago. She hopes the attention, the awards and the tributes give her boys something tangible to help them deal with their loss.

And she hasn't shied away from memorial services and awards that expose her children to the kindness of other people.

Will she become a spokeswoman for any efforts to make doctors and their families safer?

"I will do it, if it's the only way to get it done, but I won't do it at the expense of my kids," she said. "They're my only priority right now."