Conspiracy theory in US abortion war

A trainee hairdresser with a reputation for quoting the Scriptures and for bouts of melancholy is due to appear in a US district court in Norfolk, Virginia, tomorrow following last week's deadly shooting spree at two abortion clinics.

Prosecutors are expected to begin the process of extraditing John Salvi, a 22-year-old anti-abortion activist, to Massachusetts, where he is accused of murdering two female receptionists in attacks on the clinics in a Boston suburb on Friday.

Mr Salvi was arrested in Norfolk on Saturday - some 600 miles from Boston - after an off-duty arson investigator allegedly saw him peppering a third abortion clinic with rifle bullets, contacted the police, and tailed his pick-up truck. Mr Salvi was eventually surrounded by police and captured, ending a 25-hour manhunt that had stretched across the United States.

As mourners continued placing flowers and cards at make-shift shrines to the two dead women outside the Boston clinics yesterday, an intense debate over the causes of America's escalating abortion war unfolded. Bob Dole, the incoming Senate Majority Leader, described the killings as acts of "terrorism" and said increased protection for the country's 1,500 abortion clinics may be necessary.

The debate has primarily focused on several specific questions: if John Salvi was the killer, is he merely a deranged loner? Or were the attacks the work of a network of anti-abortion extremists who are committed to ever more violent tactics? Five peoplehave died in abortion-related shootings in the United States in the past 22 months.

Members of some pro-choice groups - particularly the National Organisation for Women (Now) - believe that a small, fanatical network of anti-abortionists may be at work, and have demanded that the Justice Department step up investigations into this possibility.

Meanwhile, most abortion supporters agree that - whether organised or not - the attacks have been fuelled by the increasingly bloodthirsty rhetoric of anti-abortion extremists.

Evidence of this is plentiful. In July, David Trosch, an outspoken Catholic priest from Alabama, sent a letter to members of Congress predicting the "massive killing of abortionists and their staffs". According to the New York Times, this contained a list of targets, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Now, who would be "sought out and terminated as vermin are terminated".

Last year saw the publication of a manual for anti-abortion activists, The Army of God, which calls on its readers to burn down or bomb abortion clinics. And in November, Daniel Ware, an anti-abortion leader from Houston, declared on a nationwide radio programme that "blood will run in the streets like nobody has ever seen" if Florida goes ahead with the execution of Paul Hill, the anti-abortion campaigner who has been sentenced to die in the electric chair for murdering an abortion doctor and his bodyguard.

But the possible impact of such inflammatory language on Mr Salvi may be hard to assess. Evidence from his acquaintances suggests that he is a bizarre character, a gloomy, lonely man who sported a picture of a human foetus on his truck, squabbled with strangers and regularly littered his conversation with quotations from the Bible.

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