The FBI launches a probe of abortion-clinic violence, shining a spotlight on extremists who defend homicide

Picture of “Father” David Trosch, and cartoon from front page of Trosch’s newsletter promoting killing of abortion doctors.

The cartoon includes in big letters: “JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE”

Caption under picture reads: INFLAMMATORY: Father David Trosch has supported Paul Hill’s position by word and (on the front page of his newsletter) cartoon


IN EARLY MAY, JOE SCHEIDLER, HEAD OF the Pro-Life Action League and hardly a moderate in antiabortion circles, sat down at Sauganash Pancake House in Chicago to reason with some colleagues. Over mushroom omelets and buttermilk pancakes, one little group revisited a topic that had split a larger meeting of antiabortion protest leaders the day before at a nearby hotel: Is the killing of abortion doctors "justifiable homicide"?

Scheidler says he argued that it wasn't. What if a doctor was killed, he asked, just as he was on his way to tender his resignation — to quit and sin more? Well, answered one of his breakfast partners earnestly, if that happened, "God would understand " Scheidler refuses to identify the man other than to say he was not Paul Hill, who also attended the Chicago conference and who now stands accused of murdering Pensacola, Florida, doctor John Bayard Britton and his unarmed escort, James Barrett. But future inquisitors may not let it rest at that. Last week the FBI initiated a 90-day preliminary investigation into a suspected violent conspiracy among pro-life activists. If the investigation discovers additional evidence of criminal activity, a full-fledged inquiry could follow.

The Chicago meeting will undoubtedly be near the top of the bureau's investigative priorities. Though the 60-person conference did not include leaders of the main stream pro-life groups, with their millions of sympathizers, it did attract the movement's radical wing, whose adherents make up the majority of clinic protesters. Scheidler and other attendees report that after nearly two days of debate, barely half those present specifically repudiated Hill's extremist views. Adds Scheidler: "It wasn’t just justifiable homicide; it was [support for] violence, bombing and arson ... I thought, 'Wow! The movement has gone through some kind of transition ' "

The larger groups represented at the meeting — notably Operation Rescue and its more sizable spin-offs—seemed at least superficially resistant to that transition; they require that members sign a pledge of nonviolence. Yet Fred Hobbs, a special agent with the Florida department of law enforcement who has been investigating antiabortion violence for over a year, notes, "We feel that sometimes these pledges are [merely] a means to avoid prosecution under criminal and civil RICO [federal racketeering] statutes" In addition, during the meeting more militant pro-lifers founded a new group, the American Coalition of Life Activists, at least partly out of frustration with their colleagues' perceived timidity.

Defenders of justifiable homicide make a simple, if scary, argument: if abortion is murder, then any means to prevent it — even murder—is morally justified. Says Roman Catholic priest David Trosch, perhaps the most vocal proponent of this view: "If a person with a shotgun happened upon the scene of massive butchering of innocent children, and failed to act with deadly force, as quickly as possible, he would be committing a grave offense against God."

Trosch’s public eagerness for the death of abortion doctors, as well as their staffs and officials of Planned Parenthood, has caused the Archbishop of his Mobile, Alabama, parish to relieve him of his pastoral duties.

Another activist, Michael Bray, editor of ‘Capital Area Christian News’, has written that abortion providers should be stoned to death: "With each blow . . . by the grace of God, he may confess his sins and be saved before expiring" Even some who claim to oppose justifiable homicide are notably shy about condemning the actions of Paul Hill. Says Don Treshman, president of Rescue America:

Whether the FBI can find anything that qualifies as a conspiracy to commit violence under the Attorney General's rules is far from certain. Says Dallas Blanchard, a professor of sociology at the University of West Florida and a consultant to the pro-choice National Abortion Federation: "There probably is collusion among the leaders of sit-ins and invasions of clinics. [But] the real extremists—the bombers, the arsonists, the murderers — tend to be encapsulated, planning their most violent acts privately.

To thwart any such acts, the Administration last week dispatched federal marshals to protect abortion clinics around the country. In Pensacola, where a clinic opened for the first time since Dr. Britton's murder, a dozen protesters looked on as an officer whisked an unidentified man, presumably the doctor's successor, into the building. A potentially more dangerous situation exists in Gulfport, Mississippi, where pro-life activists have vowed to begin a campaign against Dr. Joseph Booker, who they claim is the state's only full-time abortion doctor. It will be the maiden effort of the American Coalition of Life Activists, the group born at the Chicago conference. ACLA'S leaders are displaying a nonviolence declaration signed by prospective members. Pro-choice activists and law-enforcement officials will be watching closely to see if they hold to it.

—Reported by Bonnie Rochman/Atlanta, Sarah Tippit/Los Angeles and Jay Peterzell/ Washington