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Remembering Dr. David Gunn on Abortion Provider Appreciation Day

Dr. David Gunn was murdered by an anti-abortion terrorist in 1993. His murderer was up for parole last year, but did not receive it. At the time, Dr. David Gunn’s son, David Gunn Jr., wrote a letter to the parole board begging them to not release a known terrorist. On this anniversary of Dr. David Gunn’s death, we wanted to share an excerpt of that letter, where Gunn Jr. talks about his father as a person, as a doctor, and as a father.

 

My dad was born in Benton, Kentucky to Pete and Mae Gunn on November 16, 1945. He and his twin sister Diane followed an older brother Pete III, and were, in turn, followed by a younger sister Lilith. He was part of a large family, and as he did eventually, all the Gunn siblings married, had children of their own, and we spent a considerable amount of time together with the family when dad was alive. As it stands today, dad would be a grandfather fives times over as I have four children and my sister Wendy has one. Dad would have been a wonderful grandfather. Our children suffer from his absence.

Dad contracted polio as a child which left him with a severely disfigured leg, and he walked with a limp his entire life. The impaired leg cause significant hip and back pain and stunted his growth. He was a slight man in appearance but was full of intense courage and determination. Although he was disabled, he never pictured himself as diminished or small; rather, he did all he could to ensure his childhood was not marred and scarred by disability. He played baseball though it pained him to run the bases. He was a Boy Scout who rose to the rank of Life just shy of making Eagle. He rode bikes, water skied, swam, and eventually drove a car (even going so far as to master operating a vehicle with a manual transmission using one leg). Growing up in rural southwest Kentucky, he hunted and loved fishing. Once he decided to reach a goal, he reached it. Polio may have maimed him physically, but it did nothing but fire his spirit and determination.

Dad was an avid reader, did well in school, and had an incurable sense of curiosity. As a result of his intelligence and a caring disposition, dad’s parents pushed him toward a career in medicine.  After high school, he attended and graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. While a student, dad met my mom Reta and they married in January of 1968 before relocating to Lexington, Kentucky so he could begin medical school. Mom and dad welcomed their first son Charles Edward Gunn, Jr. into their lives on August 16, 1968. Unfortunately, their budding family was interrupted by its first tragedy when Chucky was killed in a car accident in March of the following year. I was born in October, 1970. Dad graduated medical school in 1973, and the family relocated to Nashville where dad stared his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt Hospital.

While still a resident at Vanderbilt learning his craft, my sister Wendy was born in April, 1975. Dad’s ability as a doctor was recognized quickly by the physicians overseeing his residency. He received honors as a resident and was on the path toward an enviable career as a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.

Dad was a generous and humble young doctor, and his desire to truly help and improve the lives of his patients influenced his decision to move the family from the suburbs of Nashville to Brewton, Alabama in 1977. Brewton is a tiny, poor, paper mill town with a population of about 6,000 people just north of the Florida panhandle. When dad and his would-be partner opted to open a practice in Brewton which was served by a hospital with no real obstetrics facilities, I am sure many considered the decision ill-advised. Why would two promising young physicians leave cosmopolitan Nashville with its pre-eminent regional medical facilities for a backwater town in southernmost Alabama, his peers and colleagues must have asked. Dad’s answer was simple, he wanted to serve a community suffering from one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. He and his partner desired to serve the underserved. They wanted to save lives.

Dr. Clay Newsome and and Dr. David Gunn opened their OB/GYN practice in Brewton, Alabama in 1977. Both young doctors were dedicated to their patients, and they tirelessly served their community. Dad was never one to shy away from engaging his patients, and I remember many nights doing my homework while he returned patient calls from the dining room table. Patients loved my dad not simply because he provided them excellent and quality care, they appreciated his authenticity. As an obstetrician, he helped pioneer a technique for delivering breech babies which significantly mitigated or eliminated the need for cesarean section deliveries. His technique was published in medical journals and is still used to this day.

While prenatal care and labor and delivery were his primary areas of practice, dad was dedicated to serving all of his patients‘ health care needs. To that end, just four years after abortion was legalized in the United States, with an understanding that patients in need of abortion services deserve a compassionate, patient, understanding, non-judgmental, and empathetic doctor as much as those who do not, dad undertook to learn and develop the skills needed to provide his patients that option. Eventually, he started seeing patients at a clinic in Pensacola due to a shortage of doctors willing to provide abortion services in the deep south.

During the late 70s and 80s, dad’s practice was primarily obstetric in nature. He delivered countless babies over almost 20 years in the field. My sister and I both accompanied him when he completed hospital rounds, and we each witnessed childbirth at an early age. After moving from Brewton to Eufaula, Alabama in 1983, dad continued to serve his community via a successful OB/GYN practice. He also agreed to provide abortion services to a clinic in Columbus, Georgia when the owner called and asked for his help. They had no shortage of patients but lacked a committed doctor. As was his nature, dad answered the call for help and started commuting the 120 round trip miles to Columbus, Georgia on Saturdays—that is after working a full schedule in labor and delivery—to serve a constituency in need.

I was 14 or 15 when dad approached me one day and told me I would be driving him to work on in Columbus the following Saturday. After years on his feet delivering babies with one good leg, he suffered excruciating back pain which made driving long distances uncomfortable especially following a full week of his normal duties. When we left for Columbus that Saturday, I’m sure I asked why he was seeing patients on the weekend in another city. He must have gave provided a satisfying, and long, answer. As we discussed abortion, I do not remember feeling any sense of controversy or misgiving. I knew what abortion was, knew it was legal, knew women needed them, knew girls who had them, and understood it was my dad’s job to serve his patients’ needs without judgment. It never occurred to me that he was doing dangerous work or that his decision to help this constituency of patients was one that would ultimately lead to his death. I was familiar with abortion but was naively ignorant of any controversy regarding the subject.

My education in the inherent danger of women’s reproductive care started when we arrived at the clinic for the first time as we were greeted by one lone protester wearing a sandwich board of offal masquerading as a fetus—a false image used to intimidate, shame, and torture the patients who passed him on their way to and from the clinic. While dad saw patients that day, I talked with some of the staff and learned of acid attacks, clinic bombings, and other acts of terrorism clinic staff and doctors encountered across the country on a daily basis. As we drove home that first night, I was shaken but dad was calm and reasoned. He assured me he was safe and there was nothing to fear.

He and I, sometimes accompanied by a sampling of my high school friends, made these weekly drives throughout my time in high school. Our regular drive to Columbus soon evolved to include trips to Montgomery, Alabama (another 180 mile round trip) on alternating weekends. Dad liked to talk and the long drives provided him a captive audience and an ample platform. Though sometimes tedious, confrontational, unpleasant, and/or stressful, these drives provided me some of my fondest memories, and driving a car for any real distance invariably reminds me of him and our road trips together.

Shortly after I moved to Birmingham for college, dad started to spend more time on the road. He started each week from Eufaula, drove to Columbus, Georgia, then headed to Montgomery, Alabama, drove down to Mobile, Alabama, and ended the week in Pensacola, Florida only to start anew the next week. He logged approximately 1000 miles per week maintaining this burdensome schedule. He was so committed to his job and patients that he traveled six days a week seeing patients in at least four different cities. When I asked why he maintained such a rigorous schedule, he told me people would suffer without care if he refused. As the 80s transitioned into the 90s, as the culture wars intensified, and as anti-abortion protests became more aggressive and confrontational, providing abortion services to women in the thick of the Bible-belt became dad’s sole occupation.

Though my dad was committed to his practice, there were others who were as equally committed to ending it. In the last year of dad’s life, anti-abortion zealots started a campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to drive him away from abortion services and out of their towns. These terrorists, and they are terrorists by anyone’s definition, circulated wanted posters adorned with my dad’s picture, his address, his phone numbers, and his work schedule all over the region including his home town, offices, and around my sister’s high school. He feared he was being stalked and followed as he drove alone city to city. I later learned this fear drove him to take alternate routes as he traveled alone from city to city. This was before cell phones were widely available. It is fairly sparse and desolate between Eufaula and Montgomery from Pensacola to Mobile. Anything could happen…

There were threats of violence phoned into the various clinics where he worked. He began to carry guns in an attempt to regain some sense of safety and peace. He, and his patients, faced a phalanx of hateful antagonists daily whose anger and hatred were inflamed by anti-abortion organizations and their leaders. Groups such as Operation Rescue published manuals instructing their adherents in surveillance techniques, offered advice on legal ways to harass and intimidate, and organized clinic sieges in an effort to further their cause and incite hatred and violence. Though these zealous terrorists attempted to silence him, dad refused to stop seeing patients who relied on him for their healthcare needs.

Dad lived under constant threat of violence for years. On January 22, 1993, roughly two months before his assassination, dad pulled into work confronted by another angry mob. Today, he must have thought, I am going to protest back. Dad greeted protesters outside a clinic in Montgomery with an impromptu solo performance of Happy Birthday to You celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade. Next, he produced a large boom box, adjusted the volume to 11, and played Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in their direction while he sang along. His protest generated some local press, his ongoing dedication to women’s health began to draw national attention, and the ire and desperation of his foes intensified.

At this time, Pensacola, Florida became the hot bed of anti-abortion activity. A local self-styled reverend and former Ku Klux Klan leader named John Burt headed the regional offices of Rescue America. Burt purchased a small tract of land adjacent to one of Pensacola’s women’s clinics where dad worked which was used to stage protests designed to intimidate and harass all who visited. Burt went so far as to build scaffolding next to the clinic’s privacy fencing so his follower and he could more easily confront the patients and staff. Burt knew of my dad and hated his occupation. Dad remained undaunted.

I last saw my dad on Monday, March 7, 1993. He spent the weekend with me in Birmingham and enjoyed a rare weekend away from work. We grilled (he cooked a mean steak), drank some beer, watched his beloved Kentucky Wildcats play a basketball game, and enjoyed our time together. As we talked face to face for the last time that Monday morning, dad told me a strange man approached him the previous Thursday or Friday as he was leaving Pensacola to come visit me. He said to me the man in question approached him and repeated his name with an odd cadence, “Dr. Gunn…Dr. Gunn…Dr. Gunn,” or something similar. I asked him if he felt threatened. He assured me he did not. I asked him if he was scared or feared someone would harm him as I was genuinely concerned for his safety by this point. He made light of the situation, said something flippant about the person confronting him, assured me there was no need to worry, and seemed sincere when he said he did not think those who opposed abortion would actually harm him. I was not entirely comforted but understood his decision. He drove away.

….

He was an excellent and compassionate doctor who cared deeply for his patients, and he never missed an opportunity to help those in need. When one of three women are likely to have an abortion during their lifetime, it is imperative to have doctors like my dad who have the courage to persist under threat of death while never allowing the patient to see anything other than compassion absent of shame. Dad tried to leave the world a better place than he found it. There is no way to account for the people whose lives he impacted for the better just as there is no way to estimate the lives he could have helped had he lived.

 

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