In the first such fatal incident in the long- running and bitter battle between anti- and pro-abortion activists, David Gunn, 47, was shot in the back three times when he arrived at his own abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, during the morning. He died two hours later.
Dr Gunn had been met by a picket of about a dozen demonstrators. One of their number, Michael Griffin, 31, a father of two, broke away from the group, apparently fired the shots into the doctor and then gave himself up to police. Mr Griffith was remanded in custody without bail by a local judge yesterday.
The anger of abortion rights supporters was fuelled by the half-hearted expressions of regret from pro-life organisations. Rescue America, which had organised the Pensacola protest, said that 'while Dr Gunn's death is unfortunate, it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved'.
Witnesses in the area said Mr Griffin shouted out 'Don't kill any more babies' as he fired the shots and that afterwards the other demonstrators behaved as if they were happy. Clinics in other areas subsequently received phone calls threatening that members of their staff could be next.
Gunn performed abortions in conservative areas of Alabama, Georgia and at his Pensacola clinic, opened just a month ago. Old-fashined 'Wanted' posters carrying Gunn's picture and his address and telephone number were circulated at a rally last summer in Montgomery, Alabama, in honour of Randall Terry, leader of Operation Rescue, a leading anti-abortion group.
Only last week, at a Florida rally, Mr Terry urged supporterrs to harass doctors as the best means of disrupting abortions. 'We've found the weak link is the doctor,' he said. 'We're going to expose them; we're going to humiliate them.' Anti-abortion activists are frustrated that, as one of his first acts as President, Bill Clinton relaxed several abortion restrictions.
Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, argued that the shooting was the natural sequel to the increasing violence of anti-abortion groups against women's clinics. 'Now we've had a death, a cold-blooded shooting. What more will it take to get state and federal law enforcement moving?' she declared.
She was joined by Kate Michelman, President of the National Abortion Rights Action League. 'The fact is that we, many of us, have stood silently by while a campaign of intolerance and violence has occurred in this country.' Reported incidents of vandalism against abortion clinics nationwide doubled from 1991 to 1992. This week in California, medical staff received hospital treatment after acid was sprayed into eight clinics in the San Diego area.
Mr Griffin, who told the judge yesterday that he wanted to conduct his own courtroom defence using the Bible as a legal document, apparently asked congregation members at his church last Sunday to pray for Gunn.
'He asked that the congregation pray and asked that we would agree with him that Dr Gunn would give his life to Jesus Christ,' said John Burt, a lay preacher who led the protest and is regional director for Rescue America.Reuse content