The holy war against reproductive rights took a chilling turn last week, with what some are aptly calling the "assassination" of Dr. David Gunn during a Rescue America assault on a clinic in Pensacola, Fla.
Gunn's death should serve as a call to action for those who think abortion rights can be taken for granted. Now is the time to demand legislation that protects those rights and punishes the vigilantes who would stop at nothing to oppose them.
A week ago, this demand might have seemed odd. After all, last year the Supreme Court narrowly reaffirmed the right to abortion in its Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision. And this year, President Clinton lifted the "gag rule" that prevented federally funded clinics from offering abortion counseling.
The pro-choice movement, which had been holding its breath since 1989, when the Supreme Court approved state restrictions on abortions, finally exhaled.
But, as David Gunn's death makes clear, there is no breathing easy.
The recent pro-choice victories have only served to light a fire under abortion foes, who haven't entirely given up faith in the Supreme Court. Last month, the court ruled that an organized campaign to prevent women from obtaining abortions does not violate federal civil rights laws. In that case, Bray vs. Alexandria, the court said that a post-Civil War law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act could not be applied to groups such as Operation Rescue.
In an angry response to the decision, the Fund for the Feminist Majority's Eleanor Smeal said that the court had "granted a license for . . . domestic terrorism."
If the slaying of David Gunn seems an aberration, you have only to hear the smug reactions of some anti-abortion movement leaders to know that it was a logical consequence of their eye-for-an-eye religious zealotry.
"I think all life is sacred, and Dr. Gunn and (his killer) are both victims of abortion," said John Burt, who organized the Rescue America protest where Gunn was slain.
"While Gunn's death is unfortunate," said Rescue America spokesman Don Tresh, "it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved." The question is not whether abortion should be legal. It assuredly is legal (although if a woman happens to live in one of the 83% of American counties that provide no abortion services, her rights may be merely theoretical).
The question is whether we will tolerate the increasingly violent acts of a rabid and intolerant minority.
According to the National Abortion Federation, there has been a startling increase in violence against clinics and doctors' offices in the last year. The group recorded 93 acts of violence (including vandalism, arson, bombing, assault and death threats) against providers in 1991. Last year, the number rose to 186. In January and February of this year, 27 incidents were reported.
The next step must be to turn a cold legal hose on the overheated foes of choice. A woman may have the right to choose, but that right is meaningless unless she can safely exercise it. Likewise, the rights of medical professionals to do their jobs safely must be protected.
New and pending legislation on several government levels could help.
In January, a new California law took effect, making it illegal to obstruct access or physically detain a person entering or exiting a health care facility, church or school.
Some communities, such as San Diego, have modeled "bubble ordinances" after a San Jose law that requires protesters to keep at least eight feet away from someone who has made a statement such as "Leave me alone" or "Back off."
San Diego's ordinance might have spared Denise Burkle a tremendous amount of grief, and maybe even the loss of a baby.
In 1989, Burkle, a devout Catholic who is personally opposed to abortion, was pregnant and thrilled about it. She stumbled upon an Operation Rescue hospital assault while on her way to see a doctor about some bleeding she'd experienced several days earlier. She was detained by a woman posing as a nurse, then surrounded for almost an hour by Operation Rescue supporters who thrust blood-covered plastic fetuses at her. She became hysterical.
" 'Please let me go,' " she says she pleaded. " 'You shouldn't be doing this to me.' And that's when I started bleeding again. In my heart, I believe they caused my miscarriage."
On the national level, a bill to protect access to clinic entrances has been introduced in the House. This bill would undo the Supreme Court's Bray decision, and make it a crime to obstruct someone from entering or leaving a medical facility.
Finally and most important, the federal Freedom of Choice Act of 1993, short and sweet, would prevent states from restricting the right to terminate pregnancy before fetal viability or at any time if a woman's life or health is endangered.
If you believe in choice, contact your legislators and urge them to co-sponsor these laws. Tell someone who can make a difference. Tell them now.
Do it for David Gunn.