If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Shoot ‘Em, the Murder of Dr. David Gunn

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Shoot ‘Em, the Murder of Dr. David Gunn

By Neil deMause

The murder of David Gunn was just the warning shot in a right-wing campaign to cleanse America of “abortionists”

The antiabortion protest was proceeding as usual, with a handful of demonstrators swarming the sidewalk in front of the clinic. Inside, neither the doctor nor clinic staff paid them much mind—they were by now accustomed to the commotion — until a man pushed his way into the waiting room carrying a sawed-off shotgun … and fired.

This was not Pensacola, Florida; the doctor was not David Gunn. This was Springfield, Missouri, last December 28, three months before Dr. Gunn’s assassination by a member of Rescue America launched antiabortion violence onto the front pages. In fact the Gunn murder, say abortion-rights activists who track such activities, was not so much an isolated attack as the latest in a trend towards overt violence by the antiabortion movement, most of it directed at doctors and clinic employees. It’s no coincidence, some might say, that the antiabortion forces have become commonly known as the “antis” — English for contras.

“There’s been so much violence directed at abortion providers for years that people simply were not surprised” when Gunn was killed, says Ann Baker of the Majority. Baker, who for some yean now has functioned as a sort of one woman clearinghouse on antiabortion activities, has chronicled three separate attacks by gunwielding clinic assailants prior to Gunn’s murder, including the assault in Springfield, which left the clinic manager permanently paralyzed and forced the clinic to shut down. And doctors who provide abortion services have been prepared for even longer. Says Baker: “When I was in Wichita, the summer of the Wichita siege [in 1991], I walked up to Dr. George Tiller my second time back, and gave him a hug.

And I thought, something has come between George and me — namely, his bulletproof vest.”

Various explanations have been proposed for the rise in violence: The Supreme Court’s Bray decision in January, which may have been interpreted as giving a green light to antiabortion activism; the election of Bill Clinton (“the Antichrist,” in antiabortion parlance), and his subsequent reversal of several Reagan-era antiabortion measures; the rise of new, more ‘militant’ ‘ groups from the ashes of Operation Rescue (though these are invariably front groups involving the same people, as was documented by the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force recently when they videotaped anti leaders telling supporters to make checks out to “O.R. or O.R. National — we can cash either one” — evidence that helped pin a $100,000 fine on O.R. National for violating an injunction against O.R. blockades).

But according to Baker and other anti watchers, the current wave of violence is as much a response to the successes of clinic defense efforts as anything else.

Violence had always been part of the anti repertoire, of course: The first reported clinic bombings occurred in the 1970s, and vandalism and harassment have long been commonplace. But for several years after Randall Terry founded Operation Rescue in a Pensacola Sizzler Steak House In 1986, the antiabortion movement had focused much of its energies on large-scale blockades of abortion clinics, coupled with aggressive “counseling” of women entering clinics, to reframe their image as a sort of later-day civil rights movement for the unborn.

As increasingly coordinated clinic defense mobilizations were mounted, however, and jail terms and especially fines built up, scattershot blockades began to pale as a tactic. The siege of Wichita in 1991 —as O.R. forces took advantage of a supportive mayor and police chief to get arrested time and time again in front of that city’s three clinics, ballooning a few hundred demonstrators into headline-grabbing thousands of arrests – marked both the clinic blockade’s high water mark and its last gasp. When last April’s Spring of Life campaign in Buffalo fizzled in the face of massive prochoice resistance, it was clearly the end of the road.

“The day of the large blockade is dead,” agrees Gina Shaw of the National Abortion Federation. “What we’re seeing a lot more now are the really frightening guerrilla tactics, which include intense, localized harassment of physicians and staff. We’re seeing a lot of what you might call ‘war of attrition’ tactics, where they specifically target one particular clinic and focus all their efforts on it, hoping to drive them out of business.”

Bombings and arson have been part of the antiabortion repertoire since the 1970s – NAF records a total of 117 incidents at last count, the most recent being in Missoula, Montana in March. More recently, these tactics have been joined by such innovations as butyric acid, a noxious, foul-smelling liquid sprayed under a clinic’s door or through a hole drilled in a wall.

“We’ve seen an increase just in general vandalism — more broken windows, glue in locks, hoses being stuck under doors overnight and flooding the clinic,” says Shaw. “But butyric acid accounted for nearly 50 percent of last year’s vandalism.” The week of Gunn’s murder, six San Diego clinics and doctors’ offices were hit with butyric acid.

All this was a direct result of efforts by anti leadership to focus their movement’s efforts on doctors providing abortions. As Terry began proclaiming that “we have found the weak link” in abortion providers, the focus on antiabortion attacks shifted from harassing pregnant women to open warfare against physicians. “Wanted” posters featuring doctors who perform abortions have been a staple of recent campaigns — Gunn was featured on one in the weeks before his murder—as has stepped-up picketing of providers’ homes. (NAF figures show reported picketing incidents up nearly 900 percent, from 292 in 1991 to 2,898 last year.) In a recent mailing, Operation Rescue National leader Keith Tucci bragged about the by now well-known statistic that 83 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, as well as the decrease in medical schools teaching abortions.

Possibly the most bizarre salvo in this campaign is the Bottom Feeder, an anti-abortion ‘zine put out by Texas-based Life Dynamics that consists of a deluge of childish jokes and cartoons ridiculing “abortionists” and suggesting what to do with them. (“What would you do if you found yourself in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and an abortionist, and you had a gun with only two bullets in it?” asks one cartoon. “Shoot the abortionist twice.”) Life Dynamics mailed copies of the Bottom Feeder to 34,000 medical students across the country in early February.

The impact of such tactics can already be seen in Wichita, where, two years after national O.R. and the national media left town, continued harassment has forced one of the city’s three clinics to stop performing abortions, and another may be soon to follow. Jean Postleth-Waite of Wichita National Organization for Women recites the litany of harassment: “One doctor had all four tires slashed on his car. There was a woman doctor who was being harassed, and they threatened to harass her at her wedding. One of the doctors had their house up for sale, and the amis went in and left bibles at the open house. They have followed the children, they have gone to neighborhoods and told other children, ‘Did you know that the person down there kills babies?'” Under these conditions, the medical residents who previously performed procedures at the clinics have been unwilling to continue. Nationally, says Shaw, no NAF member clinics have been forced to close as a result of harassment, but Ron Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers says he knows of 13 providers who quit in the weeks following Gunn’s murder.

So is Terry right after all? After batding over the Supreme Court and the presidency, are prochoicers in fact to find that doctors are the weak link? “That’s an insult,” replies Baker. “Doctors provid ing abortions are not the weak link, but the medical profession has not been motivated, it seems to me, to respect the provision of abortion services, and there fore it’s been very easy for them to back off.” Other abortion-rights advocates believe that students may actually be drawn into the field by the recent public ity: Madison, Wisconsin ob/gyn Liz Karlin says she recently has seen a rise in the number of medical students asking to observe abortion procedures at her clinic. Of course, she adds, “If a medical student shows an interest, they’ll picket the medi cal student’s house too.”

But even if diehards like Dr. Gunn— who traveled across the entire Southeast to provide abortion services to remote areas—hold out, can this be enough to provide reproductive health services for an already vastly underserved populace? While cities like New York or San Fran cisco—where clinic defense activists from the Bay Area Coalition for Our Repro ductive Rights have been able to outmo bilize die antis time and time again —are relatively safe havens for now, rural and suburban areas where doctors are isolated and police often unsympathetic are espe cially vulnerable to attack. Barring a mas sive expansion of those authorized to perform abortions — to midwives or nurse-practitioners, for example — there is the increasing prospect of a growing People forget that there are little battles beingfought all the time on the grassroots level patchwork of abortion-free zones across the country, fertile ground for obstruc tionist “waiting period” legislation and for antiabortion “crisis pregnancy cen ters,” which already outnumber real clin ics 3 to 1 in the United States.

Legal remedies to the ongoing harass ment are limited. Existing laws prohibit ing “stalking” can easily run afoul of First Amendment barriers and are difficult to enforce, especially if the local judiciary system is predominantly anti abortion. And most proposed federal legislation such as the recently intro duced Freedom to Clinic Entrances Act would handle only blockades, though Fitzsimmons expresses high hopes for the Reproductive Freedom Protection Act, a bill introduced by New York congress woman Nita Lowey that would cut off community development block grants to any municipality that doesn’t enforce harassment and stalking laws already on the books.

Meanwhile, providers and their sup porters are looking for more direct ways to combat harassment. Bernard Luck, an ob/gyn in New York’s Orange County, has for years been subjected to incessant harassment, including a parking lot strewn with nails and repeated encampments of antis on his front lawn. (The harassment has escalated since Randall Terry gave a speech to Orange County Right-to-Life in 1991, urging local activists to picket doctors “in front of their house, their practice, and their golf course.”) After finding no relief forthcoming from local authorities—many of whom were mem bers of the local Right-to-Life group, Luck’s wife Louise contacted the New York City-based Women’s Health Ac tion and Mobilization (WHAM) for help. WHAM responded by helping organize a series of prochoice counter demonstrations outside the Luck’s home, culminating in a community teach-in in April for over 80 local residents, includ ing a contingent from nearby Bard Col lege, as well as by conducting clinic defense training for local residents. At one teach-in, says WHAM’s Tricia Kozitsky, “[Louise Luck] stood up and said, ‘I can feel proud of what we do, and I can walk out the front door with my head high now. I feel like I have people that are behind me and support me. If nothing else, that is extremely important.’

“People get kind of lazy,” continues Kozitsky, “Because the Clinton Admin istration is in office, and NOW and NARAL are so huge and so well-known, people tend to forget that there are little battles that are being fought all the time on the grassroots level. And you can’t just think it’s all going to be taken care of — that other people are taking care of it, that Clinton is going to take care of it. The antis are not going to stop doing what they’re doing, so we better start dealing with it.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.