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Writer laments editorial on abortion doctor murder

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The editor of a Canadian Catholic newspaper said he regrets that through an editorial he wrote about the October 1998 shooting of an abortion doctor, “the culture of death now seems to have been propagated.”

Paul Schratz, editor of the Vancouver, British Columbia, archdiocese’s B.C. Catholic, wrote the editorial following the Oct. 28 shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a New York doctor who performed abortions. Controversy was sparked by Schratz’s comments about the “mixed feelings” of antiabortion activists who deplored the shooting but felt gratified that such violence might hinder further abortion access.

“How can anyone help but be pleased murders of abortionists just might have some positive side effects,” Schratz asked, like “fewer doctors willing to face ... the threat of personal harm?”

His comments drew extensive American and international media coverage.

The B.C. Catholic, inundated by requests for copies, found readers largely supportive, although some canceled subscriptions.

Schratz said his reputation is trashed among some “blessing and grace.” He took some surprising calls, among them one from a woman who said that although she was in favor of abortion rights, she understood and appreciated what he was trying to say.

Schratz said coverage of Slepian’s shooting prompted his “firm editorial” on the use of violence to fight abortion. “The church has specific teaching covering these questions,” he said, adding that he felt a need “to acknowledge there could be good” from the shooting.

The editorial stressed that Catholicism teaches “we cannot intend evil in the hope good might come of it,” adding, “the catechism spells it out nicely. To end a man’s life -- because of the depravity he may perpetuate -- is sinful.”

There was alarm when Schratz suggested the murder showed God could bring good from any situation and pointed out some antiabortion activists wouldn’t be troubled by the murder. Abortion opponents would say that “the violence committed by one sniper is no greater than violence perpetuated in clinics,” Schratz wrote. “And they’re right. Violence is violence.”

Responding to media coverage and the deluge of calls received by the Vancouver archdiocese, Archbishop Adam Exner said in a public statement, “The church’s position is crystal clear. There is no justification. ... Taking human life only helps promote the culture of death.”

Exner accused The Vancouver Sun of misinterpreting the piece but added that Schratz “might have worded it a little better.”

Schratz, in a subsequent editorial, acknowledged he could have been more discerning in his choice of words. “If I’d known paragraphs were going to be used in isolation, I wouldn’t have used those words,” he said.

While he maintains neither he nor the B.C. Catholic condone violence, Schratz said he feels distressed some readers believe otherwise. “It’s a very disturbing thing. I try to put myself in the position of readers in New Jersey or Manitoba. I’d be shocked, stunned and appalled,” he said.

Slepian’s murder is the first fatality among five shootings since 1994. Three Canadian doctors and another American physician from Perinton, N.Y., were targets. United States and Canadian investigators are examining a possible pattern linking the shootings. Police believe a high-powered assault rifle is being used.

Newsweek reported that Slepian was conversing with antiabortion activist and pastor Bob Behn and his wife about spirituality and abortion and had invited Behn to breakfast. Slepian had also been invited to speak at Buffalo’s antiabortion Clergy Council when he was shot.

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999