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The Doctor, The Niece, and The Killer

No one disputes what happened: Anti-abortion activist Jim Kopp shot Dr. Bart Slepian through his kitchen window. As the trial begins next week, Slepian’s niece recounts her struggle to understand why.


Next Monday, I will sit in a courtroom and watch the man who killed my uncle face justice. Friends think this should give me great satisfaction, but really I just feel nauseated. I’m afraid my uncle will be smeared. I’m afraid my aunt and cousins will lose ground on their hard-fought battle to live normally. And I’m afraid my uncle’s killer, whom I’ve met and corresponded with, will smile at me. The only things I’ve packed so far are waterproof mascara and anti-anxiety medication.

The case of The People of the State of New York v. James Kopp is unusual because the prosecution and defense agree on almost all of the facts. My uncle, Bart Slepian, was an Amherst, New York, obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice. By the late nineties, he was also the youngest of four doctors in greater Buffalo willing to work at the region’s only abortion clinic. Jim Kopp is a microbiologist turned anti-abortion activist. Totally committed to poverty, chastity, and protecting “life,” he was admired in anti-abortion circles for being so “Christ-like.”

But on October 23, 1998, Jim took an SKS assault rifle fitted with a scope, sneaked into the woods behind Bart’s house, and waited. At about 10 p.m., Bart and his wife, Lynne, returned home from Friday-night synagogue services. Upstairs, their youngest sons, ages 7 and 10, were sleeping in bed. Downstairs, their two older boys, 13 and 15, watched a Buffalo Sabres hockey game on television in the family room, which opened onto the kitchen. Chatting with his wife and sons, Bart heated up a bowl of soup.

Outside in the dark, obscured by tree branches, Jim watched through a pair of Tasco binoculars. As Bart bent his head to blow on his soup, Jim hoisted the rifle to his shoulder, took aim, and fired. Inside the kitchen, there was a ping. A little shattered glass skittered across the floor. “I think I’ve been shot,” said Bart. “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lynne. Bart was already unconscious on the floor. With the hockey crowd cheering in the background, their oldest son grabbed a fistful of paper towels, knelt down, and tried to stanch the blood pouring from his father’s chest. Two hours later, Bart was dead.

Despite his prompt appearance on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Jim remained at large for more than two years. After a trail in Ireland went cold, he was finally apprehended in March 2001, in Dinan, a small town in northwestern France. Jim proclaimed his innocence for a year and a half. Then, last November, he admitted to shooting Bart. Jim said he intended just to wound Bart to prevent him from doing abortions: “I aimed at his shoulder. The bullet took a crazy ricochet.”

Jim’s defense is justifiable homicide.

Bart was my mother’s youngest brother. Shortly after my father died from kidney disease when I was 4, Bart left his medical school in Louvain, Belgium, and came to stay with my pregnant mother and me in Reno, Nevada. On and off for eight years, he lived in our unfinished basement and browbeat my broken mother into functionality. In short, Bart taught me how to love.

After Bart was murdered, I spent a year on tranquilizers. A lot of things were banging around in my head. Not the least of which was the fact that my uncle was being remembered, celebrated even, as an abortionist.

Bart actually worked only about eight hours a week at the abortion clinic, and he didn’t like doing the procedure. But he did it for almost twenty years, and his reasons pissed me off; a woman’s right to choose never made his top five. At first, Bart did abortions to pay off his student loans. After he became a father, he did them to prevent unwanted children from being born into a world that wouldn’t take care of them. Later, he did them to prevent the three remaining abortion providers in western New York from being overwhelmed. Bart also did abortions because he wasn’t the kind of man who caved in to bullies: the Christians who sang “Jesus Loves the Little Children” so loudly outside his home that he and his family couldn’t hear their own Hanukkah prayers, the pro-lifers who followed his grade-school sons to school and begged them not to become killers like their father.

That’s not to say that Bart considered abortion entirely ethical. In his last speech, to a group called Medical Students for Choice, Bart insisted on saying, “Abortion is the killing of potential life. It is not pretty. It is not easy. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be necessary.”

As I helped him write the speech, I accused my uncle of “doing abortions for all the wrong reasons.” He accused me of being silly.

After Bart’s death, after my year on tranquilizers, I became pregnant with the child he’d urged me to have ever since I’d married—in Bart’s opinion—“dangerously late” (at age 28). When I recorded my daughter’s heartbeat during my first trimester, then videotaped her ultrasound during my second (the pictures are still easily recognizable as her), I had to admit Bart had a point about abortion being the “killing of potential life.”

After I gave birth, I forced myself to watch several abortions. In a second-trimester procedure, which Bart had performed, a doctor dismembers the fetus into six pieces: four limbs, a body, and a head. Then—to make sure there’s no fetal tissue left in the womb—the doctor puts the fetus back together again on a little metal tray. It looks like a bloody broken doll. I wanted to call my uncle. I wanted to admit to being much worse than silly. I wanted to cry in his arms.

As soon as the FBI named him as the only suspect in my uncle’s murder, I became obsessed with Jim Kopp. It felt embarrassingly like a teenage crush. I clipped articles about him and made a scrapbook. I bought spy software to get the lowdown on everything from his credit rating to his arrest record to his old girlfriends; I wondered a lot if he had sex with them. I even went to a range and shot an SKS assault rifle at a human-shaped target 100 yards away.

Eventually, I called Jim’s friends and family. Many of the pro-lifers declared him innocent, and several were eager to tell how and why my uncle was “really” killed. According to them, Bart was about to convert to Christianity and become pro-life. This had sent the pro-choice community into a murderous rage, so an FBI agent had killed Bart to impress Janet Reno.

On the day Jim was apprehended in France, it happened that I’d arranged to talk to one of his friends, Susan Brindle, a writer and illustrator of “Precious Life” books. Susan took the coincidence as a sign that Jesus was welcoming me into Jim’s life. So she invited me to accompany her and Jim’s defense attorney to visit Jim in his French jail. Six days later, I boarded a plane for Paris.

I’d expected to meet Jim in a room divided by thick, grimy Plexiglas and to talk to him on a phone. I comforted myself that I wouldn’t have to touch him. But French jail turned out to be more relaxed than American-TV jail, and I met him in a small, private room with nothing but a thin wooden table separating us.

He’s a tall, lean, shockingly handsome man with eyes that really are baby blue. He carried a Bible. At the sight of me, he stuck out his free hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jim,” with the warm enthusiasm I associate with people in twelve-step programs. I shook his hand, mumbled “Amanda,” and sunk onto a narrow bench.

There was a long silence, and to fill it I told Jim two people had sent their love to him via me. (I hadn’t planned to give him this, but my mouth was just going.) The instant I mentioned the second person’s name, Jim curled into a fetal position and sobbed so abjectly I had the urge to hold him. I didn’t, and eventually he choked out that he thought this person hated him. He pulled himself together by saying, “If you wait long enough, everything in life comes back to you.”

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