Jill Polet, pregnant with her second child, knew it was time to get to the hospital—and fast. She phoned her obstetrician, Bart Slepian of Amherst, N.Y., who raced to Children’s Hospital of Buffalo with his wife, Lynne, a registered nurse. While Lynne massaged his patient’s back, Slepian delivered Polet’s baby girl, Jaymie, on Aug. 27, 1993. “Bart didn’t always show his emotions, but he had a huge smile on his face,” recalls Polet, now 35. “That was his greatest joy in life, bringing babies into the world.”
Slepian also performed abortions—he was one of the few doctors in the area who did—both at his private practice in the affluent suburb of Amherst and at a low-cost clinic in downtown Buffalo. That work made him the object of protests, but despite the trouble it caused and the threat of violence from anti-abortion extremists, he refused to give it up. “He felt he was trained to be an ob-gyn and as long as abortion was legal, that women should not be denied that right,” says Slepian’s longtime lawyer Glenn Edward Murray.
That commitment cost him his life. On the evening of Oct. 23, just moments after returning from a synagogue to mark the anniversary of his father’s death, Slepian, 52, was shot in the back as he stood chatting with his wife in the kitchen of his two-story brick house, apparently by a sniper lurking somewhere in the woods outside. Slepian was pronounced dead at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital at 11:30 that evening.
Slepian’s murder did not come as a complete surprise; like many abortion providers he had been working under the threat of death for years. “There is systematic and routine violence against people who work in these clinics, and if they’re not being shot, they are being harassed,” says New York City attorney Eric Schneiderman, who has represented abortion clinics in court. Six more Americans have died as a result of attacks on abortion facilities in the last five years, and since 1994 four other doctors in Upstate New York and nearby Canada have been shot, though none fatally, in the weeks before and after the Nov. 11 Veterans Day holiday—known in Canada as Remembrance Day. Indeed, within hours of his shooting, Slepian’s name was symbolically crossed off a list of abortion-providing “criminals” displayed at an Internet site, complete with dripping-blood graphics, maintained by anti-abortion zealot Neal Horsley of Carrollton, Ga.
Mainstream anti-abortion activists were quick to denounce the murder. Buffalo’s Roman Catholic Bishop Henry J. Mansell termed the murder “an act of madness” and called on the public to respect “human life in all its forms, especially the most vulnerable.”
Those who knew Slepian point out that the doctor had devoted his career to nurturing life, caring for the needs of his women patients from puberty through menopause. “People on talk radio are saying he deserved to die,” says Slepian’s longtime friend Betsy Kozinn, “but look into the eyes of the babies who are alive because of him and say that.”
Born in Cambridge, Mass., Barnett A. Slepian was raised mainly in Rochester, N.Y. “Bart” put himself through medical school at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Mexico, graduating in 1978. A residency brought Slepian to Buffalo, where he met his future wife, Lynne Breitbart, now 43, who was working at Buffalo General Hospital.
By all accounts the doctor took his greatest pride in the couple’s four sons—Andrew, 15, Brian, 13, Michael, 10 and Philip, 7. “Bart was first and foremost a family man,” says lawyer Mark Hirschorn, 52, a longtime friend. Slepian was a faithful supporter at his sons’ sports events and took them on annual trips to Toronto to see major league baseball. At home he periodically declared “no-tube” days when the whole family read instead of watching TV. As the family grew more comfortable—Slepian drove a Lexus with MY 4 BOYS license plates—Bart tried to teach his sons the value of a dollar, telling them the story of how his hard-pressed parents re-wrapped the same toy fire truck year after year as a Hanukkah present.
Slepian spent most of his working day at his solo practice in Amherst, where he kept a scrapbook of babies he had delivered and made a point of sending bouquets to all his new mothers. He began keeping regular hours at Buffalo GYN Womenservices, a clinic with many young and underprivileged patients. “His feeling was that if he could stop doing abortions because they were not necessary anymore, he would be thrilled,” says Amherst attorney Eva Rubinstein, 40, who began seeing Slepian as a patient three years ago. Meanwhile, “he would see whoever needed to be seen, wherever they needed to be seen.”
Slepian’s high-visibility work at the downtown clinic immediately put him at odds with anti-abortion protesters. At times, Slepian invited them to set up a table outside the clinic to educate women seeking its services. But in 1988 he lashed out at activists picketing his home at Hanukkah and damaged a protester’s van with a baseball bat. The noisy demonstrations were continuing unabated six years later when Slepian wrote an eerily prescient letter to The Buffalo News in which he acknowledged the rights of the nonviolent activists who had heckled him and his family at home, in a mall and at Buffalo restaurants. “But please don’t feign surprise,” he warned readers, “when a more volatile and less restrained member of the group decides to react to their inflammatory rhetoric by shooting an abortion provider.”
Police in Amherst have yet to name a suspect in the shooting of Slepian, who was standing with his back to a window at the time of the attack. The single bullet passed through his chest and ricocheted into the TV room, where his oldest son, Andrew, was watching a hockey game, landing in the fireplace. Slepian’s wife and four boys tried to stanch his bleeding with towels.
Some observers celebrated the murder. In Virginia, Rev. Donald Spitz, founder of Pro-Life Virginia, called the gunman a hero for stopping the doctor’s “bloodthirsty practice.” But in Buffalo, where Slepian’s patients remember him as a man, not a target, there is little rejoicing. In 1997, Slepian helped homemaker Amy Clop give birth to a healthy boy following a pregnancy jeopardized by toxemia. “The thing that bothers me most is, we’re planning on having more children,” says Clop, now 29. “And I can’t imagine having a baby without him.”
Julia Campbell and Michelle York in Amherst and Nina Burleigh in New York City