1031 Beacon Street and 1842 Beacon Street, Brookline
At 10am on Friday, December 30, 1994, John Salvi entered the offices of Planned Parenthood on Beacon Street in Brookline and opened fire with a rifle. Salvi, 22, then drove a short distance westward to Preterm Health Services, one of two other reproductive health clinics on Beacon Street at the time. Upon entering the first-floor office at 10:10am, he again opened fire, after asking if he was in the right place.
In addition to wounding five individuals, Salvi killed two people that winter day on what anti-abortion activists called “Abortion Row”: Shannon Lowney, 25, a receptionist and Spanish translator at Planned Parenthood, and Leanne Nichols, 38, a receptionist at Preterm Health Services.
The following day, police finally caught up with Salvi. Authorities apprehended him shortly after he fired a dozen bullets at the Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, Virginia. At the time of the shootings, Salvi was an apprentice hairdresser living in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Active on the margins of the anti-abortion movement, Salvi suffered from mental illness, and, according to members of his own family, had grown increasingly fanatic in his religious beliefs.
In addition to John Salvi’s idiosyncrasies, the shootings in Brookline reflected a charged political climate regarding reproductive rights—locally and nationally.
Protests outside the clinics on Beacon Street in Brookline were common in the 1990s. They ranged from clinic blockades and prayer vigils to harassment of individuals entering the facilities. On at least one occasion, Salvi himself attended a protest outside Planned Parenthood.
In Greater Boston, the Catholic Church, then under the leadership of Archbishop Bernard Law, was vocal in its opposition to abortion. In his first public statement after becoming archbishop in 1984, Law called abortion “the primordial evil of our time.” (In 2002, Law resigned from his position in disgrace in the wake of revelations of widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston and his role in ignoring or covering up of many such cases.*)
In the United States, the political climate regarding reproductive rights was not only charged, but also violent at times. In the 22 months preceding the killings in Brookline, there had been three other fatal shootings at clinics elsewhere in the country.
In early 1996, a jury in Norfolk County Superior Court found John Salvi guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and five counts of armed assault with intent to murder. The judge, who had determined that Salvi was mentally competent to stand trial, sentenced him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Eight months later, authorities found Salvi dead in his cell in MCI Cedar Junction at Walpole (formerly known as Walpole State Prison); he had committed suicide.
That same year, Preterm Health Services and Planned Parenthood merged and moved to a new clinic, the Greater Boston Health Center, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
Outside of the former site of the Planned Parenthood clinic, there is a small plaque that honors the memory of Shannon Lowney. For unknown reasons, there is nothing similar honoring Leanne Nichols outside of the former site of Preterm Health Services.
For Planned Parenthood, Green Line (C Branch) to St. Mary’s Street station; the site is diagonally across the street. For Preterm Health Services, Green Line (C Branch) to Englewood Avenue station; the site is directly across the street.
To learn more:
Kevin Cullen and Brian McGrory, “Gunman Opens Fire in Brookline Clinics, Kills 2 and Wounds 5,” The Boston Globe, December 31, 1994.
*See the entry on the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End section of A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.