by Merle Hoffman
Question: 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?
Answer: Shoot the abortionist twice.” (From Bottom Feeder, an anti-abortion cartoon book)
Just for good measure, Dr. David Gunn was shot three times in the back by rabid pro-lifer Michael Griffin as he was leaving a Pensacola, Florida abortion clinic in March of 1993. As soon as I heard that the National Coalition of Abortion Providers was arranging a one year memorial service in Gunn’s memory, I knew I had to be there.
I had never met David, but I had met his brother. One week after his murder, we shared a platform on the Montel Williams show along with John Burt, the former Ku Klux Klan member turned born again anti-abortionist. Burt was the leader of Advocates for Life Ministries, the radical “pro life” group that Michael Griffin had joined shortly before he murdered Gunn. I remember the rage I swallowed listening to his rhetoric about how physicians who performed abortions were murderers, and that stopping them by any means possible was justifiable homicide. I felt for David’s brother who had chosen to put himself in the position of answering those charges publicly, as if there were some objective reality to them, as if it were necessary to defend a physician who traveled hundreds of miles each week to provide access to abortion services to women who would otherwise have none. But by the immutable laws of television, Williams was intent on giving everyone equal time to “debate.”
I knew that by going to Pensacola I was going into enemy territory. There had been a rash of clinic bombings, and the radical fringe of the anti-abortion movement was particularly active in the area. Their most recent offensive was successful: last August after ten years in practice, The Women’s Clinic of Fort Lauderdale lost its lease a result of the continuous anti-abortion demonstrations, vandalism, and death threats to families of staff members. My personal safety was not an issue. I was used to living in a war zone; my own clinic has been picketed repeatedly and I have received a number of death threats during the 23 years that I have directed Choices.
I was surprised, however, when Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, got on the plane with me and after a quick hello told me sotto voce that Paul Hill, a notorious anti-abortion activist, was sighted at our hotel with two unknown aides. An anonymous threat had been made the night before on television by a man whose face was covered by a large, blue dot; we could expect a mass murder, he predicted – something so big that it would surprise both sides – something like Hebron or Beirut. And my old TV debating opponent, John Burt, was quoted on the Pensacola evening news to the effect that he would be getting out of town because the “spectacle” of two-to three-hundred abortionists in one place was too much of an incentive for mass murder. He would put himself out of the way of “temptation.”
As if this were not enough, word came down that the F.B.I. had intercepted someone in a car loaded with a cache of weapons, including explosives, headed for the hotel where we were all to stay. Now this was a little more than even I was used to.
Upon arriving at the hotel I was told that people planning to attend the memorial were on “high alert.” They were aware that threats had been made, and the rumors surrounding the capture of the loaded car made everyone a bit edgy. I subsequently learned that agents in Houston, Texas had arrested a local anti-abortion activist, Daniel Ware, on weapons charges. At his arraignment, evidence was presented to show that Ware had gone to Pensacola armed with explosives (as well as three guns, one a .357 Magnum, and about 2500 rounds of ammunition) with the stated intention of staging a Beirut style suicide attack on the abortion providers gathered there.
At the hotel that afternoon the question of whether to go to the memorial service became an “issue” for the providers. Arrangements had been made for most of us to go to the service in buses, yet many felt that would make us moving targets; there would be no question of “innocent bystanders” being at risk – something that might give the right wing Christian terrorists pause – everyone in the bus would be considered “hard core” pro-choicers. The police had been notified and we were told that we could expect a full armed escort all the way to the service.
The morning of the memorial a special meeting was called to discuss defensive strategy. It was agreed that a decision not to go would be respected. Many people were frightened – but stronger even than their fear was the bold fact that by not going to the memorial they would be giving in to the terrorists -whose greatest weapon is fear. No one stayed away.
It was sunny and warm when we left for the memorial. But the weather was no balm for the soul, for stationed outside the hotel were armed police, members of the F.B.I., and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The reality of driving to a memorial service for a murdered gynecologist in a (procession interspersed with motorcycle cops and police cars was one of the a more Kafkaesque experiences of my life.
The service was held in an amphitheater opposite the clinic. Given the weather, I was surprised to see Smeal wearing a turtleneck sweater along with along, dark blue raincoat. Only after a few minutes of looking at her carefully and noticing that she looked rather “boxy” did it occur to me that she was wearing a bullet proof vest. She was not the only one; two male physicians were outfitted with vests, but they were making no secret of it. Smeal, however, was almost apologetic. She mentioned more than once that she was wearing it because her son was worried about her, and had insisted on it. I thought it strange that a feminist leader felt it necessary to make an excuse for protecting herself in a dangerous situation – she was “doing it for her children,” not herself. The men, however, had no such sensibilities. They did not have to apologize to anyone: they wore their macho on their bulletproof chests. One, in fact, walked within 20 feet of a lone picketer holding a sign that read “The wages of sin is death” and “Abortion is murder.” And, as everyone watched, the doctor pounded his chest screaming, “Why don’t you just do it – come and get me – you don’t have the guts.” During this display of righteous passion and provocation, Smeal and I stood next to each other scanning the windows that faced the stage, looking for the butts of rifles.
The service was intense and moving. Gunn’s son, just 23, spoke of his pain and loss and pride. A condolence message from President Clinton was read; he wrote of rededicating “ourselves to strengthening the freedoms of choice and privacy,” but I thought the words rang hollow. Even with more governmental legislative and popular support for pro-choice policies, the difficulties in providing abortion services have been growing. A new survey by the Feminist Majority revealed that 50.2% of clinics experienced severe anti-abortion violence in the first 7 months of 1993. Clinics and health care workers face death threats, stalkers, chemical attacks, arson, bomb threats, invasions, and blockades. Physicians who performs abortions say that they are increasingly outcast in their profession. There has been a steady decline in abortion training for medical students in the last 6 years. Less than 12% of medical schools now provide first trimester abortion instruction as part of the required curriculum. That was why Dr. David Gunn had to travel; he was the only abortion provider available within a few hundred miles of his clinic.
After the service, a few of us went to lunch at a local restaurant. In the ladies room I watched with amazement their children in their Sunday best; as Ellie Smeal nonchalantly ripped off her raincoat and sweater to reveal the heavy white vest over her bra which she then quickly removed. I had the strong feeling that I was in a parallel universe; one that, unfortunately, I seem to have become more at home in than the so called “real one.” I’ve had this feeling before, most powerfully in the early days of 1988 when Operation Rescue came to New York, and I found myself one five a.m. facing a few hundred people chained together in front of a clinic on the east side singing “Amazing Grace.” Everything was going on around me as if it were a day like any other. People were on their way to work, walking their dogs, eating their breakfasts, except I was living in a war zone. Here it was happening again. Families were coming into the restaurant for their after church lunch, their children in their Sunday best; while Smeal and I, like two old soldiers, discussed strategic advantages of various anti terrorist initiatives and exchanged battle stories.
Upon my return to New York, I earned that “Shelly” Shannon, an anti-abortion activist, had been convicted of attempted murder in Wichita, Kansas After she admitted to shooting – though not fatally – Dr. George Tiller last August. Tiller is one of the few physicians in the U.S. who specializes in third-trimester abortions, performing them only when the fetus is deformed r the mother’s life is in danger. Shannon, would appear, had a role model for murder. Copies of letters she sent to Michael Griffin while he was in jail waiting trial praised him as a “hero of our time.” She wrote, “I know you did he right thing. It was not murder… I believe in you and what you did.” After she learned that Tiller, whom she shot i both arms, had survived the attack, Shannon considered resorting to explosives to blow up his clinic.
And in Alabama, a Roman Catholic priest, David Trosch, tried to place an ad in the Mobile Register that endorsed the killing of doctors. The ad shows a man pointing a gun at a doctor who is holding a knife over a pregnant woman. Two words accompany the picture: “Justifiable Homicide.”
George Tiller is a friend of mine. For many years I have referred women to his clinic for difficult therapeutic late-term abortions, and each of us have shared in subsidizing a young girl’s travel, hotel, and medical bills because George was her only and last chance for an abortion. Some months ago, he told me that he always wears a bulletproof vest, and that he drives to work in an armored car.
Two days after the Tiller shooting, Dr. G. Wayne Patterson, owner of six abortion clinics and one of the few physicians to perform abortions in the Mobile Pensacola area, was killed as he returned to his car in the nightclub district of Mobile. Police attribute his murder to a robbery gone awry, but reports reveal that nothing was stolen from Patterson; his body was left with his wallet on it. Dr. Patterson was a partner of Dr. David Gunn; he owned the clinic at which Gunn was murdered. As of this writing the murder is still officially listed on the police blotter as a robbery.
Joseph L. Foreman, a Presbyterian minister who helped found Operation Rescue and now leads the Milwaukee based Missionaries to the Preborn, has written, “The transcendent question being forced upon the pro life movement is, do you really think this is murder? You know it would be right if your family was defended from murderers by someone using lethal force. Why not a fetus? To say that it’s not murder is to buy the line of the abortionists – that the fetus isn’t quite as human as a human.”
This thinking is not limited to the right. A group called the Seamless Garment has placed ads in traditionally “left” magazines like Mother Jones, in which they compare the violence of environmental degradation, nuclear war, and capital punishment with abortion. Language that compares great movements for social justice with the antiabortion cause and militant rhetoric that praises murderers, calls clinics “abortuaries” and their doctors “child slaughterers,” has created an environment that fertilizes terrorism. Murderers begin to see themselves as saints. “Is it really so bad?” Shannon was quoted after the killing of Dr. Gunn. “People cheered when Hitler was killed, and the abortionist was a mass murderer.”
Dallas Blanchard, author of Religious Violence and Abortion, has studied the profiles of those arrested for violent acts against clinics. He says they are split between long time activists, frustrated at their lack of success and those with only a short-term involvement in the movement who are hungry for celebrity or martyrdom. “I think the violence in the future will continue to come from both directions,” Blanchard says. “The dam has a hole in it now.” This “hole” will be filled to some extent by the recent Supreme Court ruling that allows abortion clinics to invoke the Federal racketeering law in suing violent anti-abortion groups for damages. The recently passed FACE Bill – Federal Access To Clinic Entrances – which makes it a federal offense to block people’s access to the clinics should help, too. But they are not enough. For terrorists who believe they are doing “God’s work,” the laws of the state are mere obstacles on the road to salvation.
There is a method to their madness. They know that without providers there is no such thing as choice; legal abortion is merely theoretical if there is no one willing and technically capable of doing the procedure. Many of the early physicians, whose commitment was formed by the experience of having women die in their arms or in hospital emergency rooms from botched abortions, have died off or are on the verge of retiring. The increasing number of physicians unwilling to perform the procedure because of harassment, or lack of commitment and the dearth of medical schools willing to train residents has resulted in the need for traveling doctors, like David Gunn.
To counteract this I have made one small step. A gynecological resident training program has begun at CHOICES in conjunction with a major New York City hospital. We will be teaching young physicians the history of abortion and training them to perform first-and-second-trimester procedures. Within the curriculum there will be a lecture on how to search their facilities for bombs, the pros and cons of gun ownership, and where to buy bulletproof vests.
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.