It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years…

On March 10, 1993 the “abortion wars” began in earnest.  To be sure, before that day anti-abortion zealots had bombed abortion clinics, harassed doctors and staff (one doctor was actually kidnapped), verbally tortured women as they entered the abortion facilities and engaged in many other forms of what soon would be called “domestic terrorism.”

But on March 10, the first shots were fired – into the back of Doctor David Gunn.

Truth be told, when I got the call from Susan Hill, the owner of several abortion facilities throughout the nation, telling me a doctor had been killed, I wasn’t shocked because in the previous months, anti-abortion activity had been ramping up.  Doctor Gunn worked at Susan’s clinic in Columbus, Georgia and at other separately owned clinics throughout the South.  He was known as a “circuit rider” because he traveled from city to city in his beat up car, performing abortions for a few hours then moving on.   Without his services (and energy), several clinics would have been forced to close because he was the only doctor.  Women would have had to travel much further to receive abortion services.

One of David’s regular stops was the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services, a relatively new clinic in a town that was well known for its virulent anti-abortion zealots.  David had mentioned to Susan that the anti-abortion activity had been picking up at the clinics he worked at and he decided to arm himself – to no avail.

That morning, David Gunn pulled up to the back of the clinic and parked in his usual   space.  There were a few protestors at the front of the clinic but when David pulled in, one of them made their way towards the parking space.  When David got out of the car, he did not bother taking his gun.  He took a few steps towards the clinic and Michael Griffin, a relatively new face to the protest scene, took out his gun and shot David in the back.  He died instantly.

The murder was the lead story in every paper and on the network news.  The inevitable had happened – an abortion doctor had been killed in the name of “saving babies.”

Soon thereafter, the dyke burst wide open.  Over the next few years there would be more murdered doctors.  Then, clinic staff people were targeted.  Those who provided abortion services, no to mention their families, were gripped with fear.  Suddenly they did not walk anywhere without checking their surroundings, looking under their cars for bombs, watching every protestor with a wary eye.  The sale of bullet proof vests escalated dramatically, clinics hired security guards and purchased expensive metal detectors.

And, yes, some doctors decided to abandon their practice and some clinics closed.  But the others hunkered down, refusing to surrender to the terrorists.  Indeed, the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” became the anthem of abortion providers everywhere.

Ultimately, the violence waned for many years.  That’s why the murder of Doctor George Tiller was such a shock because it had been a while since there was any violence of that nature.   And it will no doubt happen again but the “good” news is that that wave of violence that was ushered in on the morning in Pensacola is just a memory for many.  Still, we can never forget and we should use this “anniversary” to remember not just the sacrifice of David Gunn, but of the others who gave their lives to further the reproductive rights of women.

And rest assured that we will indeed not back down.