A few days ago, those of us in the pro-choice movement took a moment to remember Doctor David Gunn. On March 10, 1993 Doctor Gunn became the first abortion doctor in the United States to be assassinated by a “pro-life” zealot. His murderer, whose name I will not even use, is serving a life sentence in a jail in Florida.
Doctor Gunn travelled throughout the southwest, going from clinic to clinic to serve women who needed abortions and other reproductive health services. Weeks before his murder, he had told people that the anti-abortion protestors were getting more aggressive and to protect himself he started carrying a gun in his car. On that day, as he was entering the back entrance to the Pensacola Women’s Services, his calmly walked up behind him and shot him in the back. Doctor Gunn’s revolver was still in his glove compartment.
To many of us who represented abortion providers, this murder was not a terrible shock. We knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when it would take place or who it would be. The clinic bombings, the stalking, the ugly “Wanted” posters were increasing day by day. The tension was palpable. So, when the call came into my office in Alexandria, after I gasped I had to say I wasn’t too surprised. Over the next few weeks, the media was all over the story. Clinics across the country went on “red alert,” hiring security guards and buying bullet proof vests (one company actually called my association to see if we were interested in a group purchasing deal).
So, as this sad anniversary passed, I found myself wondering what did this assassin think he accomplished when he murdered Doctor Gunn?
I suppose that after all of these years he would probably still say that he had murdered a “murderer” who was going to “kill babies” that day. The funny thing is that after David’s murder, the staff at the clinic were on the phone setting up appointments for women in other clinics in the area. The director of a clinic in Mobile told me that she was “mobbed” with patients over the next few weeks. And, yes, a few doctors across the country who were always a little skittish about their work did decide to accelerate their retirement. But, again, when they retired the women found another doctor and another clinic to go to.
Over the last decade, the number of abortions performed in this country have decreased. Clinics are closing because they cannot see enough patients to pay for the rent, insurance, medical equipment and salaries. And that’s the good news. We all would love to see the day when women are not confronted with an unwanted pregnancy and forced to make a difficult choice, be it abortion, childbirth or adoption.
And, fortunately, the murders have stopped as well. Doctor Tiller in Kansas was the last abortion doctor to be murdered and it has been rather quiet since then. That tells me that when the violence really started to escalate in the 1990’s a lot of the motivation was mere copy-cat killings. And my hope is that we’ve seen the end of these senseless killings.
But the remaining doctors know they cannot let their guard down.