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PUBLIC DEBATE, PRIVATE LIVES
FOR THREE DECADES, BUFFALO AT CENTER OF NATIONAL BATTLE

Abortion.

The word alone is explosive -- conjuring anger, compassion, fear, and always debate -- no matter which side you are on. And the procedure is every bit as common as it is controversial: If past trends continue, two of every five American women will have an abortion by the time they are 45, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Abortion and Western New York. For a myriad of reasons, the issue is different here. A series of vivid news events has infused abortion in Buffalo with a particular intensity -- emotional, personal and political.

For more than three decades, Western New York, time and time again, has made national headlines for its role in the country's most contentious battle. Among the events:

The slaying of a Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, an abortion provider, in 1998.

The street protests in the 1980s and '90s by thousands of impassioned activists -- pro-life and pro-choice alike.

The flocking of women seeking abortions to Western New York after legalization here in 1970 -- three years before the rest of the nation.

The renewed focus on Buffalo now as James C. Kopp, the suspect in the 1998 slaying, confessed to two Buffalo News reporters that he shot Slepian.

It's all heightened here by a sensitivity that comes from a deeply religious population. The abortion debate may swirl around the touchy topics of sex, religion and politics, but in the Buffalo area -- identified by a recent study as the most religious city in the country -- these issues are widely considered unsuitable for dinner table conversation.

But the string of news events leaves one question on the lips of local residents, politicians and law enforcement officials:

Why here?

To Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, whose tenure in the local justice system dates to the early 1970s, the answer has always been a puzzle.

"I could never find one common thread to point to and say, 'This is the reason,' " he said. "We didn't seem to me to stand out as some sort of pro-life oasis, but there must have been something that sent a message that said, 'Come to Buffalo to protest -- you'll get better treatment here than if you go to Chicago, Boston or Philadelphia.' "

Here is a look back at the chain of events that have brought the abortion spotlight to Western New York.

In the beginning

January 1971: A small plane pulling a banner advertising "abortion information" with a Niagara Falls phone number flies over Miami Beach, Fla.

Legal abortion came here early -- three years before the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision required the rest of the country to follow suit. Only Colorado, California and Hawaii had legalized the practice before New York, and East Coast women suddenly had an alternative to traveling to Puerto Rico or Mexico for safe abortions.

After July 1, 1970, women in search of legal abortions performed by doctors streamed into the city.

Marilynn Buckham, executive director of Buffalo GYN Womenservices, the area's oldest abortion clinic, recalls women arriving from out of state without appointments. They planned to sleep in their cars until they could be seen at a clinic at 50 High St.

In the first month after abortion was legalized in the state, 375 abortions were performed in Erie County; 90 days after legalization, 1,064 abortions had been performed in Erie County.

The Roe v. Wade decision, nearly 30 years ago on Jan. 22, 1973, relieved the strain on New York abortion clinics as doctors in every state were allowed to provide abortions on demand to women in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. More than 30 million women have had abortions in the United States since the decision, according to the Kaiser Foundation.

By the late 1980s, Western New York had six facilities that advertised abortion services. That number spawned the initial pro-life charge, says Karen Swallow Prior, a former Operation Rescue spokeswoman who now works at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia.

"For a city the size that Buffalo is, to have that many clinics was a lot," she said. "But until then, people hadn't really made up their mind about abortion. It was about consciousness raising."

The movement began under the leadership of passionate fundamentalist Christian leaders, and Western New York's staunch Catholic population -- always a friend to pro-life notions -- allowed it to incubate.

The Spring of Life

April 21, 1992: At a High Street abortion clinic, the Rev. Robert Schenck holds up a preserved fetus he calls "Baby Tia," which then falls to the ground in a scuffle while hundreds of protesters war over abortion rights.

Mass demonstrations outside abortion clinics in Buffalo, Amherst and Kenmore began in the summer of 1988, resulting in scores of arrests each time.

The protests culminated in the Spring of Life in April of 1992, when 628 people were arrested, the majority of whom were pro-life activists who had tried to blockade clinic doors.

Abortion -- perhaps the most divisive national issue of our time -- had shrunk to a battleground only the size of Buffalo.

Pro-choice activists with green hair and facial piercings stood nose-to-nose with pro-lifers with rosary beads laced between their fingers. For every bit of biblical verse from Schenck and his brethren across the divide, the pro-choicers engineered a chant to yell back at them.

"We've got your babies, and you can't have them," jeered a clump of college-age pro-choicers.

"Save the babies, kumbaya ..." went the singsong refrain of a pro-life group.

For days, the bizarre call-and-response game went on outside the area's abortion facilities, often in the pouring rain, as police in riot gear looked on.

After the Spring of Life events, the out-of-towners left, and eventually, so too did charismatic pro-life leaders such as Schenck and his brother, Paul, and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. Their movement lost steam, and abortions continued in Western New York, at a rate of nearly 6,000 per year in the mid-1990s.

Stopped by a bullet

10 p.m., Oct. 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett A. Slepian is murdered by someone crouched with a sniper rifle in the dark woods outside Slepian's kitchen window in Williamsville.

"Lynne, I think they've shot me," he said to his wife before slumping to the ground.

In 1992, Slepian, who performed abortions at GYN Womenservices, made an eerily prophetic proclamation.

"They will never drive me out," he told The News, speaking of the pro-life forces who often demonstrated and confronted him outside his home and medical practice. "Unless I'm physically stopped, nothing's going to change."

On that fall night, just hours after a note from the clinic where he performed abortions warned him to shutter his curtains to avoid leaving himself open to pro-life violence, he was physically stopped -- forever.

In the days, weeks and months that followed, abortion providers across the country went to their offices each day with fears of becoming the next Slepian, "the doctor who was killed in Buffalo."

The issue in court

November 2002: In an interview with the Buffalo News, anti-abortion militant James C. Kopp confesses to Slepian's murder. "I did it, and I'm admitting it," he said. "But I never, ever intended for Dr. Slepian to die ... "

After a worldwide FBI pursuit, Kopp was arrested in France and extradited to Buffalo, where he will stand trial for Slepian's murder. He confessed last week to Buffalo News reporters Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel.

His attorney, Bruce A. Barket, had vowed to make the abortion debate a centerpiece of Kopp's defense.

Today there are three abortion facilities in Western New York, since a new Planned Parenthood in Wheatfield began performing abortions this year. The number of abortions performed in the area fell every year during the 1990s, however -- from 8,225 in 1990 to 5,593 in 1999.

Beyond the numbers, the abortion debate has left an indelible imprint on Western New York's cultural and political identity. But nowhere is its impact greater than on the women for whom the law offered a different path at a crucial moment in their lives

There is pain on that path, and sometimes relief or guilt or hope. But most of all, in these women's stories, there is truth -- a truth characterized not by the black and white of debate, but by the many shades of gray in between.

e-mail: hauer@buffnews.com and aneville@buffnews.com

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