The Death Of Doctor Gunn

Every week for the past six years, Dr. David Gunn, 47, rode the same circuit through the Deep South. From Mobile, Ala., the blue-jeaned physician would head to Montgomery, on to Pensacola, Fla., and Columbus, Ga.-and then back again. He was, in his way, a man with a mission: providing abortions in a region where few doctors were still willing to take the risk. Last year he saw his face on a wanted poster distributed by anti-abortion extremists. "We [told] each other more and more often that it was only a matter of time before they kill someone," says B. J. Kohls, director of the Beacon Women's Center in Montgomery, where Gunn worked. Last week, during a right-to-life demonstration at a Pensacola clinic, the inevitable happened-making Gunn the first abortion provider to die because of his work. Police say Michael Griffin, a 31-year-old abortion foe with a violent history, went to the rear parking lot, shot the physician in the back three times as he got out of his car and then turned himself in.

The murder of Dr. Gunn marks a dangerous new phase in the abortion wars. For nearly two decades, right-to-life militants have used arson, firebombings and blockades as weapons of intimidation and obstruction. During much of that time, presidents sympathetic to their ends, if not their means, occupied the White House. The fact that Gunn's murder occurred just when the pro-choice movement is experiencing its greatest gains in a dozen years may not be coincidental. During his first week in office, Bill Clinton reversed a number of Reagan and Bush restrictions, including the "gag rule" banning abortion counseling at federally funded clinics. And with the Supreme Court all but certain to let Roe u. Wade stand, desperation seems to be setting in at the fringes of the right-to-life movement. "When Clinton came in, we had to stop looking to the president and start looking to God," says John Burt, a former Klansman and now regional director of Rescue America, the group behind last week's demonstration in Pensacola.

Faced with the obvious irony of a murder committed in the name of saving lives, mainstream anti-abortion groups were quick to disavow the deed. "Violence is not part of the pro-life message," says Gail Quinn, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' anti-abortion office. Far from being a monolith, the anti-abortion movement has always been an uneasy alliance of politically conservative fundamentalists and social-activist Roman Catholics, of firebombers and pacifists. The range of reactions to last week's killing reflected the movement's gamut of opinion, radiating from horror at the middle to glee at the extremes. According to Ruth Arick, coordinator of the Florida Clinic Defense Project, protesters outside a Melbourne, Fla., clinic reacted to the news of Gunn's death with shouts of "Praise God! Praise God! One of the baby-killers is dead."

The fatal confrontation pitted two sons of the Bible belt against each other. Gunn, a Kentucky native and divorced father of two, grew up in a religious family and attended a Church of Christ college. A childhood case of polio left him with a severe limp. According to his son, David Jr., 22, Gunn performed abortions because other doctors wouldn't. Gunn's killer, Griffin, operated at the margins of Pensacola's anti-abortion movement. "He's fanatical, but not a wild-eyed fanatic," says James Kilpatrick, pastor of the Brownsville Assembly of God, a church Griffin left in 1989 after an unspecified dispute. "He had this eerie calm to him." According to court documents quoted in the Pensacola News Journal last week, in 1991 Griffin's wife claimed he abused her and their two daughters, threatening "if he can't have them, neither of us will." A year later the couple reconciled.

Last Sunday Griffin attended services at the Whitfield Assembly of God church outside Pensacola. According to Donald Gratton, an anti-abortion organizer who is a worshiper there, "He just asked that we would pray that Dr. Gunn would receive Jesus Christ as his savior and stop killing children." Three days later, after Gunn had been shot, Griffin asked police for a Bible and said he wished to be his own counsel. He apparently acted on his own. But the Pensacola anti-abortion scene has always been especially violent. In 1984, militants bombed the Ladies Center, one of the town's two clinics, as well as the offices of two doctors. Burt, who has emerged as a spokesman for Griffin, served time for attempted burglary and assault at the Ladies Center. After the killing, Burt said: "We don't condone this, but we have to remember that Dr. Gunn has killed thousands and thousands of babies."

Early in their guerrilla campaign, radicals identified doctors as the weak link in the abortion chain. Militants have filed phony malpractice suits against doctors, broken their windows and hounded their kids. According to Florida Today, a Melbourne newspaper, a Dallas activist named Flip Benham recently taught volunteers at an Operation Rescue training camp in Melbourne to picket doctors at home and their spouses at work. Police in San Diego, Calif., say right-to-lifers last week sprayed butyric acid (a chemical that can cause dizziness and vomiting) at five clinics-including the one where Dr. Phillip Milgram was delivering the baby of a woman he had counseled against having an abortion.

The scare tactics are working. Several doctors in Melbourne and Dallas have recently given up their abortion practices. Clinics beefed up security-and some staffers talked about wearing bulletproof vests. "Each person has to come to terms with what they have to do for their own physical protection, because we are up against terrorism," says Lynne Randall, executive director of the Feminist Women's Health Center in Atlanta. Immediately after her swearing-in last week, Attorney General Janet Reno authorized Justice Department lawyers to see whether federal laws could be used to protect abortion seekers. Two new bills, including the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, are now working their way through Congress. In addition, pro-choice advocates are hopeful about the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the protections of Roe v. Wade.

Political realists regard the murder as a public-relations disaster for the anti-abortion cause-and a boon for advocates of choice. "We've had close to 30 million babies killed and 330 women die in legal abortions," says Joseph Scheidler, a pioneer of the movement's confrontational tactics. "Now the other side's got a martyr." Many of the moderates who have been working through the courts and legislatures worry that their long struggle for respectability has now suffered a serious blow. "People shouldn't paint a whole movement with the acts of one man," says Rachel MacNair, president of Feminists for Life in Kansas City, Mo. "Are all Muslims bombers?" But civility has never been a hallmark of the abortion debate. Last week's killing makes it clear that the passions it inspires are deadlier than ever.