By Thorp, Barbara S.
Commonweal , Vol. 123, No. 4
Last month's two-hour "Frontline" (PBS) documentary, "Murder on "Abortion Row,'" was a powerful presentation of yet another chapter in the nation's anguished struggle over abortion. The program aired just as the trial of twenty-three year-old John Salvi III opened in Superior Court. Salve is on trial for the murder in December 1994 of two women's health-clinic receptionists in Brookline.
Of particular interest to Catholics was the documentary's pairing of the lives of Mr. Salvi and one of the victims, Shannon Lowney (twenty-five). Both were raised in observant Catholic families. Salvi had been an altar boy and his mother the parish choir leader. Lowney (a 1991 Boston College graduate) had worked in a Jesuit-sponsored program serving the poor in Ecuador.
"Frontline" also contrasts the responses of various Catholics and former Catholics to the tragic events. The film has been criticized by some mainline prolife activists (see box) who feel their views were not adequately represented; and by the conservative Catholic Campaign for America, which argued that the program portrayed the Catholic church "as inciting the events in Brookline."
It is hard to imagine how any program on abortion would satisfy all viewers. But given the generally less-than-balanced state of reporting on the subject, and in particular coverage of the complexities of the religiously inspired anti-abortion protest movement, "Murder" seemed uncommonly textured. The Catholic Campaign simply got it wrong when its press release declared that the program "overtly attributes the murder of an abortion clinic receptionist to the deranged killer's Catholic beliefs." "Murder on `Abortion Row'n" makes no such claim.
That Mr. Salvi suffered(s) from mental instability seems to be the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the program. It is this delusional dimension, not his Catholic upbringing, that drove Salvi to act as he did. When a defense psychiatrist pointedly asks Salvi whether he supports actions such as Paul Hill's July 1994 murder of a doctor and a security guard at a Florida abortion clinic, Salvi replies, "Does the pope support it?" Here the documentary might have quoted the pope directly in condemning such violence, but chose to turn to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law for a response. Cardinal Law is presented throughout the program as a principled foe of abortion, but also as a humane, reasonable, and compassionate leader. "I think what we have [here] is a person who decided to do something which is wrong," the cardinal says of Salvi, "in a very misguided way because of something that is good - and that is the defense of human life." Does Salvi's misguided decision mean the prolife movement is to blame? "I don't think anyone could rationally say that," the cardinal answers.
But immediately an apparently disinterested intellectual is called on to question the cardinal's conclusion. Mary Daly, a one-time Catholic theologian and still a professor at Boston College (Ms. Lowney attended one of her courses in 1989), says that Salvi and Law "are on a continuum." It is a stunning moment of revelation about Ms. Daly, for she makes her unsupportable statement with utter self-assurance, totally oblivious of her own biases. Yet Ms. Daly's blithe commentary is but another facet of the documentary that makes it so instructive. The Catholic position on abortion is not so monolithic as to exclude debate on, for example, the point in the developmental process when personhood begins. …