Anti-choice terrorism in the US
By Karen Fredericks
On March 10 Dr David Gunn was shot three times in the back at point-blank range by an anti-choice terrorist, Michael Griffin, outside the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic in Florida. Although most anti-abortion groups in the US have distanced themselves from Griffin's act, the killing fits a pattern of escalating violence by anti-choice organisations such as Rescue America and Operation Rescue in recent months.
Things are not looking good for opponents of reproductive rights in the US. Following pro-choice mobilisations last year — including the April demonstration of nearly a million people, probably the largest ever march on Washington — the new president has lifted the notorious "gag rule" which prevented government-funded clinics from discussing the abortion option with women, the Congress looks set to pass legislation to reduce state impediments to abortion and the conservative Supreme Court has affirmed the basic right to abortion recognised in the landmark case of Roe v Wade, albeit with some restrictions.
Right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups such as Operation Rescue, Project Rescue, Rescue America and Missionaries to the Preborn have responded to the weakening of their political position by a shift in tactics, from clinic protests and letter-writing campaigns to a campaign of terror, targeted primarily at the dwindling number of doctors who are prepared to carry out pregnancy terminations.
"We've found that the weak link is the doctor", said Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, at an anti-abortion rally held in Melbourne, Florida, on the weekend before the slaying of David Gunn. "We're going to expose them, we're going to humiliate them", he told the receptive crowd.
David Gunn was the only doctor prepared to perform abortions in Pensacola, and in nearby Georgia. 83% of counties in the US have no medical practitioners who will carry out the procedure. Doctors like Gunn regularly receive hate mail and death threats. They are constantly harassed outside the clinics at which they work.
Just days before the murder, Gunn's son, David Gunn Jr, had discussed the harassment and threats with his father. "I told him how afraid I was for him", Gunn Jr told the New York Times, "He didn't seem scared. He told me not to worry, he could take care of himself." Gunn Jr believes that if there had been more attention paid by law enforcement authorities to Dr
Gunn's reports of actual and threatened violence, his father would still be alive.
The inactivity of the authorities has persisted despite some fairly obvious pointers to the source of violence against medical practitioners. For example "Wanted" posters with Gunn's photograph and home phone number were distributed at an Operation Rescue rally in Montgomery, Alabama, last year.
Although all the anti-abortion groups have taken care to emphasise that Griffin "acted alone", most have stopped short of condemning the act, and some have held it up as an example for other anti-abortion vigilantes.
"From the standpoint of preventing further murders at the hands of Dr Gunn, the actions of Mr Griffin could be looked at as a good thing", Project Rescue's Michael Bray told the Washington Post on the day after the murder. "He should be acquitted of any charges, because his actions were done in defence of people who were scheduled to die: the unborn", he said.
Bray's wife, Jayne Bray, was the petitioner in a US Supreme Court case in which, in a decision handed down in January, it was held that federal civil rights law can not be used to stop anti-choice protesters from blockading clinics which perform abortions. Pro-choice activists have now drafted Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance legislation, and are lobbying for its passage through Congress. While the Supreme Court decision protects the right to free speech for clinic blockaders, the legislation seeks to strengthen women's rights to choose abortion, and to be able to access medical facilities without harassment or fear of violence.
Don Treshman of Rescue America, the group which organised the protest in which Griffin was participating on March 10, said that "While Gunn's death is unfortunate, it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved".
Randall Terry, of Operation Rescue, told the press that his organisation felt that it is wrong to kill, but "we have to recognise that this doctor was a mass murderer".
A protester at a clinic blockade in Melbourne, Florida, was quoted, anonymously, in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, "Praise God. One of the baby killers is dead."
During 1992 there were 1107 acts of serious violence (bombing, arson, invasion, vandalism, chemical contamination etc) committed against community-based clinics which perform abortion procedures in the US. The year was a record year for clinic violence, and the damage bill has been estimated at close to $42 million.
In 1993, so far, the situation has been even worse. In February the fire-bombing of a clinic in Corpus Christi, Texas, destroyed an entire building and caused over A$1 million worth of damage. In the week prior to the Pensacola incident, four health care workers were hospitalised with respiratory problems after butyric acid was sprayed into eight clinics in Riverside and San Diego counties, California.
Pro-choice activists in California have had a campaign under way since the new year to force a federal investigation of the attacks. They are circulating a petition which points out that there has been no serious local, state or federal investigation into these incidents, and calling for recognition of a "concerted campaign of terrorism" and action to "bring the perpetrators to justice".
The headline on the March 12 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer which reported David Gunn's death, read "Doctor's killer acted alone, police say". After only one day, no doubt anticipating the accusations against anti-choice crusaders that would, and did, follow, police made statements indicating Griffin, and Griffin alone, was responsible for the death of David Gunn. All the evidence says otherwise.