Impending Florida execution piques abortion debate

Groups on both sides worry that Paul Hill could turn into a martyr for the antiabortion cause.

For nine years, former Presbyterian minister Paul Hill has dwelt joyously upon the countless lives he believes he has saved. With equal pride, however, he has also reflected on the two lives he took.

Tomorrow, Mr. Hill is scheduled to be put to death himself by the state of Florida, becoming the first person in America to be executed for the murder of an abortion doctor.

A death-chamber apology from the minister is unlikely. The father of three is adamant that in shooting dead John Britton and his driver-bodyguard, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, outside a Pensacola abortion clinic in July 1994, he committed a "justifiable homicide."

"If I did not intervene and prevent the abortionist from entering the clinic ... in the coming months and years, he would likely kill thousands of unborn children," Hill reasoned in an essay entitled "I Shot an Abortionist," written in jail and posted on his website by a friend.

The events involving Hill mark the singular intersection of two of the most controversial issues in US society: the death penalty and abortion. Although violence against abortion providers has declined somewhat in recent years, the impending landmark execution has once again drawn close attention to the issues - which has elicited a vocal and unusual set of responses across the spectrum.

Yes, there has been the inevitable flurry of protest against the execution from anti-death penalty campaigners. But they have been joined by groups on both sides of the abortion debate, and even by Dr. Britton's stepdaughter, in calling on Gov. Jeb Bush to halt the execution amid fears it will make Hill a martyr for the antiabortion cause. They are particularly concerned about a potential backlash from the movement's violent extremist fringe - a concern compounded by news that several Florida officials have received anonymous death threats warning against sending Hill to his death. Governor Bush, who appears unlikely to issue a last-minute stay, was among those threatened.

The Rev. Flip Benham, director of the Christian antiabortion group Operation West, based in Dallas, feels Hill has harmed the movement as a whole. "By unloading his shotgun into Dr. Britton's car that day, he committed a supreme act of cowardice and became the very thing he said he despised," says Mr. Benham. "He became a murderer, just like the doctors who carry out abortion and just like the women who choose it."

Others say the execution risks further galvanizing those at the movement's outer fringes. "He will become a martyr," says Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League. "Paul Hill did our cause no favors. You don't kill abortionists. You try to convert them peacefully," says Mr. Scheidler, whose Chicago office is decorated with photographs of babies born to women who were coaxed by the group's counselors against having abortions.

Followers of the Army of God, an underground antiabortion network that has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks on abortion providers, including clinic bombings in Atlanta in 1997 and Birmingham, Ala., in 1998, proclaim themselves chief among Hill's admirers.

Don Spitz, a defrocked Presbyterian minister attached to the Army of God, says "justifiable homicide" is the way forward, the mainstream antiabortion advocates having "proved" that peaceful means will not reverse the 1973 US Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. "Their way obviously doesn't work and hasn't worked for 30 years," he says. "Now the state is murdering Paul Hill and I believe there will be far-reaching consequences."

Latest figures collated by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, a reproductive health-policy analysis and research organization, show that from 1996 to 2000, the number of abortions in the US fell by 3 percent from 1.36 million to 1.31 million. The drop is largely attributed to improvements in contraceptive provision.

At the same time, statistics compiled by the National Abortion Federation show a modest decline in violence against abortion providers since the 1994 enactment of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The last two abortion-related murders occurred in 1998. (Seven have been tallied since 1977.)

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, based in Arlington, Va., fears a woman's right to choose is already "hanging by a thread." In her view, the Supreme Court favors abortion rights by only a 5-to-4 majority.

Violence, she says, is a further challenge to the aspirations of an already embattled movement. "We are concerned about the possible reaction of the anti-abortion movement's terrorist elements to Paul Hill's execution, and we have advised clinics to take extra precautions during this period," she says.

"There are hundreds of extremists out there. They don't believe in the ballot box or the judiciary, so they take it into their own hands and use bullets."

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