BROOKLINE, MASS., DEC. 30 — A gunman dressed in black opened fire with a rifle at two abortion clinics here this morning, killing two female staff workers and wounding at least five other people.
This matter-of-fact sentence was the opening of a Washington Post story on December 31, 1994. Today marks the 20th anniversary of these shootings at the Planned Parenthood and Preterm Health Services clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.
The Brookline shootings are generally considered the third in a series of assassinations by anti-abortion activists and followers, beginning with the murder of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, in March 1993. A history of acts of violence compiled by NARAL frames Dr. Gunn’s killing as a turning point, while recognizing that violent acts were happening all through the 20 years since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
I was living in Massachusetts in 1994; my life, however, was such that I did not have much time or energy for the news. I have a friend who lived in Brookline at the time; I asked for her memories of the shooting. She sent me this:
My 7-year-old daughter and I were coming home to our apartment in Brookline on the trolley to Cleveland Circle when we saw the police swarmed around the brownstone that the [Planned Parenthood] clinic was in. I had a friend who worked there part time, so I was very worried. I wanted to join the crowd of people behind the police line to find out what happened, but my daughter’s safety was first on my mind.
We hurried home from the trolley stop to call my friend — no cell phones in those days — and there was no answer. (I left a message on her answering machine.) What does no answer mean? I turned on the TV and was glued to it for any news. When I finally got through to her later that night, it turned out she had had the day off but had gone, as soon as she heard, to the hospital where several of the staff had been taken. She was good friends with the receptionist that was killed.
The clinic was a very welcoming, compassionate environment for all kinds of reproductive care on a decidedly sliding scale. It was well known to the feminist women’s health community in Boston
There were three abortion clinics within a couple of miles of one another on Beacon Street where the Cleveland Circle line ran; anti-abortion protesters called it “abortion row.”
The receptionist at Planned Parenthood, Shannon Lowney, and the receptionist at Preterm, Lee Ann Nichols, were killed. Five other people were injured.
John Salvi, the 22-year-old shooter, was arrested in Norfolk, Virginia, the next day, after trying to enter another clinic with his rifle. He was tried in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison. Within days he committed suicide in his prison cell.
The anti-abortion movement — I find it impossible to call it pro-life — already had a long record of violence against abortion providers and clinics by the time of these shootings. In a 1995 article, the Washington Post reported that
… the tally of violence over the past 12 years includes 123 cases of arson and 37 bombings in 33 states, and more than 1,500 cases of stalking, assault, sabotage and burglary, according to records compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the clinics themselves.
The protesters’ goal was to stop abortions by any means. In Boston, Operation Rescue, led by Bill Cotter, held demonstrations outside and inside the clinics for years before and since these murders. Cardinal Bernard Law, who was Cardinal of Boston at the time, strongly supported these efforts, seeing abortion as a pernicious evil.
In 1996, Frontline aired a documentary about the shootings called Murder on “Abortion Row.” In it, the lives of Shannon Lowney and John Salvi are shown in some detail. Friends and family of Lowney, Nichols, and Salvi, and witnesses to the events leading up to the shooting as well as the shooting itself, are interviewed in some depth, in addition to people like Cardinal Law, Bill Cotter, and other anti-abortion activists. Interspersed throughout are snippets of John Salvi during his psychiatric evaluation. You will not find a more complete or more powerful account. (Transcript here.)
What emerges is a picture of Shannon Lowney as a young woman who was committed all her life to helping others, and John Salvi as a young man who had been growing increasingly psychotic over several years, and who had become dangerously out of control over the last few weeks. Interestingly, the same Catholic Church that nurtured Lowney’s caring nature was also central to Salvi’s psychosis.
What also emerges is the anger and implied violence of the anti-abortion movement. Cardinal Law, who proposed a moratorium on demonstrations after the killings (which, sadly, was not respected), said:
From my perspective, the violence of the killing of these two young women was part of a larger violence that I saw as an evil, the violence of abortion itself.
Bill Cotter, who opposed not only the moratorium, but also the memorial mass for Shannon Lowney held by Boston College, the Jesuit school from which she had graduated, uses the language of civil disobedience:
If abortion is murder, we’ve got to really act like it’s murder. We’ve got to put our bodies on the lines, make a tangible sacrifice, to make a tangible effort to actually stop the killing, not just hope that it will be stopped by a politician or a judge or something. But if it’s happening now, we’ve got to do something now
And after Salvi was arrested in Virginia, the leader of the protests there, Rev. Donald Spitz, said:
I personally believe that God brought John Salvi here because there was support for him for the concept that unborn babies deserve the same protection as born babies by whatever means necessary …
Rev. Spitz also called Salvi a hero. Groups like the Army of God called for violence against abortion providers and distributed a handbook on building bombs for use against clinics. And according to Chip Berlet, who writes extensively about the religious right, magazines by such groups were found among Salvi’s meager possessions, which included particular ideas and language that Salvi used both before and after the shootings, and which fed his psychosis.
While Cardinal Law’s comment seems comparatively mild, and he showed compassion for the victims and their families and attended the memorial mass held for Lowney, it is not far off from the people who, like Rev. Spitz, compare shooting abortion providers with shooting Nazi guards at concentration camps; both see the root of the violence in abortion itself.
These ideas have not gone away, though there have been fewer actual violent acts in recent years. Ironically, the buffer zone laws that grew out of the Brookline shootings were overturned by the Supreme Court almost exactly six months ago today. The first Saturday following that decision, anti-abortion protesters crossed the line that used to mark their boundary at Boston’s Planned Parenthood clinic.
In tribute to Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols on the 20th anniversary of their deaths, here are some words from people who loved them, taken from Frontline’s documentary.
Lee Ann Nichols’ family mourned privately, so her death and funeral got less media attention. Frontline spoke to her best friend and her fiance.
Lee was like the forgotten woman and that was very sad. And Lee would not have liked notoriety, but Lee would have very much wanted her political beliefs to be known and she would have wanted people to know that she was doing this because this was what she wanted to do, not because it just happened to be a job she saw in the paper.
She had a very sweet voice. You know, if you look at a picture of her, she has a very sweet face and “sweet” is probably the word you’ll hear consistently. Lee Ann was just a sweet type of person.
In 1987, we went to a Red Sox game and we happened to sit next to Lee Ann. We went on a date the following week and she brought me a flower. It was the nicest thing that anyone ever gave me. No one ever had brought me a flower. And we just spent our whole time together ever since then.
Shannon Lowney’s family also had memories to share.
Liam Lowney (brother):
She was a very fun person. You can see that in her childhood, growing up, when she was smiling all the time. And she smiled throughout her life. I think the smile says a lot about a person.
Meghan Lowney (sister):
As children, we were given the choice to choose our own spiritual path and I think that was tremendously freeing for us. And so I think that was an experience early on in our lives where we felt we had choice and we were empowered by that choice. So as a person growing and developing her own way of thinking and believing, Shannon really believed everyone had choice and everyone needed to have choice.
Joan Lowney (mother):
That’s why she worked [at Planned Parenthood] without a blink of an eye. But the picture for Shannon at Planned Parenthood was broader than the abortion issue and that’s important. She was there to serve women in a very broad context, whether it is to help them get some basic medical care that they need, whether it is to get screening for cervical cancer … I mean, there are many reasons to go to Planned Parenthood. But if it was for an abortion, Shannon fully agreed with their right to have that and she treated them with respect, if that’s what their choice was.