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TV REVIEW

'Murder': The Story Behind 2 Abortion Clinic Slayings

February 06, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a Greek tale of inevitable doom, the story of how abortion opponent John Salvi III allegedly came to kill staffers at two Boston-area women's health clinics plays out in "Frontline's" two-hour "Murder on 'Abortion Row' " with sad, bitter irony.

This true morality play suggests how the blood-curdling rhetoric of anti-abortion activists in front of health clinics can have consequences, and how religious conviction can dissolve into madness.

Salvi's murder trial began Monday--thus, the timing of "Frontline's" report tonight.

After quickly reviewing the tragic events of Dec. 30, 1994, when Shannon Lowney and Leeanne Nichols, receptionists at nearby clinics, were gunned down, producers Virginia Storring and John Zaritsky methodically, dramatically track the lives of the victims and Salvi from childhood on.

But like an ominous drumbeat in the background is the running debate between abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion voices, and even among abortion opponents. Boston Archbishop Bernard Law, for example, who called for an abortion protest moratorium after the deaths, is seen as too soft by anti-abortion activists Bill Cotter and the Rev. Donald Spitz, who views Salvi as a kind of messenger from God.

What may at first seem like a very convenient use of Lowney and Nichols as martyrs by abortion rights activists eventually becomes a deeply human story of brilliant promise snuffed out. The focus is on Lowney (we learn strangely little about Nichols beyond her forlorn fiance and her cat named Butterscotch).

*

Raised Catholic and liberal, Lowney graduated magna cum laude from Boston College, where she won friends among professors, developed a passion for feminism and visited poverty-stricken villages in Ecuador.

Salvi, by contrast, graduated high school near the bottom of his class and wandered from one job to the next. The former altar boy's Catholicism was so personal that it became an obsession. He finally told his parents that he believed he was the thief crucified with Jesus, and his sudden mood swings seemed to indicate schizophrenia, according to physicians who testified in the pretrial hearing.

Even fellow abortion protesters feared Salvi's sometimes ominous behavior, yet no one did anything, including his parents, who are now racked with guilt. The trouble signs all apparently pointed toward women Salvi never knew and whose intersecting lives became a great American tragedy.

* "Murder on 'Abortion Row' " airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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