Minister faces execution for abortion-clinic killings

Barring the unlikely possibility of a stay, a Presbyterian minister who gunned down an abortion doctor next week will become the first American executed for anti-abortion violence.

To a loyal core of admirers, Paul Hill is a martyr-to-be whose actions were justified by the Bible. To others — on both sides of the abortion debate — he is a zealot undeserving of respect or pity.

“In a very significant way, it’s a sad day,” said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It’s sad that people like Paul Hill would murder in the name of life.”

Hill, a 49-year-old father of three, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Wednesday in Florida for the 1994 shotgun slayings of Dr. John Britton and his volunteer escort, retired Air Force officer James Barrett, outside the Pensacola, Fla., clinic where Britton performed abortions. Hill wants to die and is not pursuing an appeal.

Abortion-rights groups worry that Hill’s execution will trigger a backlash by those who share his steadfast belief that violence in defense of unborn children is justified. Several Florida officials connected to the case received threatening letters last week, accompanied by rifle bullets.

“We need to take these threats seriously,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.

Though Hill still has supporters — they have maintained a Web site in his honor, with snapshots and ballads — most major anti-abortion groups have repudiated him.

“We and other pro-life organizations are against violence, period,” said Erik Whittington of the American Life League. “What he did is definitely not anything that anyone I know of supports.”

Tom Glessner, director of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, said Hill deserved the death penalty.

“He’s not a pro-lifer, as far as I’m concerned,” Glessner said. “Osama bin Laden acted out of conviction, too.”

Organizations opposed to capital punishment have urged Gov. Jeb Bush to spare Hill.

“The death penalty gives this individual the opportunity for martyrdom,” said Diana Rust-Tierney, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project. “Far from deterring the kind of violence we deplore, it may be an encouragement.”

The governor is unswayed: “No threats, no free advice from others will change my obligation to do what I think is right.”

The murders came during a bloody surge of anti-abortion violence a decade ago.