Shootings at Florida abortion clinic

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - For the second time in 16 months, the charged debate in the United States over abortion turned deadly yesterday as a doctor and a man accompanying him were shot dead outside a women's clinic in Pensacola, Florida, writes Rupert Cornwell. A noted anti-abortion militant was arrested and charged with the double crime.

According to police, the violence erupted at 7.25am, shortly before the Ladies' Centre for Abortion clinic was due to open. The victims were Dr John Britton, 69, and a 74-year-old volunteer escort, James Barrett. Barrett's wife suffered an arm wound and was taken to hospital, where her condition was said to be satisfactory.

Pensacola, one of the most conservative cities in a conservative state, has been a frequent site of anti-abortion protests. Britton wore a bullet-proof vest when arriving and departing from the clinic but that was no protection against the shotgun blasts which cut down him and Barrett.

The shootings resemble the one such previous killing in the US, at a different Pensacola clinic in March 1993. The victim then was 47-year-old David Gunn, again a doctor arriving for work. The anti-abortion activist Michael Griffin was convicted of the first- degree murder of Gunn and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in jail.

Yesterday's suspect was named by police as Paul Hill, founder and director of the anti-abortion group Defensive Action, which advocates violence to force clinics to close. Eyewitnesses said police wrestled Mr Hill to the ground in the car-park of a nearby restaurant as he was trying to escape. A shotgun was found near by.

Mr Hill is a former Presbyterian minister and a well-known figure in the abortion-clinic protests that have taken place in several US cities in recent years. At the Griffin trial, he led pickets near the courthouse, carrying a placard saying 'Disobey unjust laws'.

This new proof of the ferocity of feelings of extreme anti-abortion activists comes at a moment when the issue threatens to intrude in the complex Capitol Hill manoeuvring to salvage President Bill Clinton's health-care legislation. Liberals want abortion to be given insurance coverage in any bill. Many conservatives are vehemently opposed. But yesterday anti-abortion groups denounced the killings.

The south-eastern US has a special history of anti-abortion violence. In Alabama, a Catholic priest has said that killing doctors who perform abortions would be 'justifiable homicide'. He has since been removed from his parish, and his views repudiated by the Church. But, as yesterday's events show, not by everyone.