In Life's Name

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

BY NATURE, DR. DAVID GUNN WAS AN easygoing sort—a "jeans and T-shirt doctor," according to one friend—whose favorite pastime was bass fishing near his home in Eufaula, Ala. By choice, though, in recent years Gunn, 47, had plunged into the country's most bitterly divisive social issue. Each week he logged 1,000 miles in his car, traveling to half a dozen women's clinics in Georgia, Alabama and northern Florida where other doctors feared to tread. Antiabortion pickets and harassment had become a growing problem, and lately Gunn had talked lo his son about one protester in Pensacola, Fla., who had started to follow him. "I asked him what would happen if he were to get shot or killed, and he told me not to worry," recalls David Jr., 22. "He had faith in people. He thought they'd be true to the title 'pro-life.' " Still, the doctor hacked up that trust with the three handguns he carried, at all times, in his car.

In the end, neither firearms nor faith in humanity were able to save him. On the morning of March 10, as he walked to the offices of the Pensacola Women's Medical Services, Gunn was shot three times in the back and killed. A troubled young antiabortion activist, Michael Griffin, 31, who may or may not have been the man stalking Gunn, quickly surrendered and confessed to the crime, and the recoil from the shooting sent shudders through people on both sides of the abortion issue. Pro-choice advocates voiced outrage and hailed Gunn as a martyr. Mainstream pro-lifers expressed shock and sorrow. But some of the antiabortion movement's most strident activists parceled out their regrets only sparingly. Don Treshman. head of Houston-based Rescue America, called the killing ""unfortunate." And Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue declared. "While we grieve for him and his widow and his children, we must also grieve for the thousands of children that he has murdered."

By the time of his death, Gunn had become accustomed to that sort of enmity. He often received hate mail and telephoned death threats, and his while Buick Skylark was frequently vandalized. Antiabortion activists had printed up Wanted posters bearing his picture and listing his address and telephone number. Even so, says Mary Paula Leonard, a nurse at another Pensacola clinic, who was also Gunn's girlfriend, ""he never expressed fear."

He did, however, exercise considerable caution. In addition to the guns he carried, he often drove rental cars on his rounds and took care to vary the routes he followed. There were times, though, when he apparently couldn't resist taunting the antiabortion vigilantes who dogged his steps. Earlier this year in Montgomery, Ala., Gunn saluted the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade by serenading protesters outside a clinic with a rendition of "Happy Birthday." He also blasted out Tom Petty's song "I Won't Back Down" from a boom box.

That stubborn determination was evident even in childhood. Gunn was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to middle-class parents—his father, Peter Jr., worked for the government, and mother Maye was a homemaker—who followed the conservative Church of Christ. One of four children, including a twin sister, Diane, young David got an unwelcome introduction to medicine when a bout of polio at 18 months left him with a severely withered right leg. According to Diane, the neighborhood kids laughed at him and called him Crip. David's response was a gritty insistence on proving his mettle. "He never felt sorry for himself," says Diane. One day, at age 10, she remembers, David decided he was going to roller-skate like his sister and her friends. He fell heavily dozens of times but, despite Diane's tearful pleas, refused to let her help him. Finally he managed to get around the rink once without falling. His goal accomplished, he took off his skates and put them aside for good.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky Medical School, Gunn trained to become an obstetrician-gynecologist, a specialty he chose in part because delivering babies would allow him to sit rather than stand on his bad leg. Moving with his first wife, Rita, to Brewton, Ala., a rustic town of 6,700, he set up a thriving practice. "He could talk to patients who couldn't read or write," says Dr. H. Clay Newsome III, who along with Gunn delivered all the babies at the local hospital. "He was a small-town person." After 18 years the Gunns' marriage fell apart and they divorced amicably. Gunn remained close to their two children—David, now a junior at the University of Alabama, and Wendy, 18, a high school senior. (Gunn was separated from his second wife, Dr. Mary Sibert.)

Around the time his first marriage foundered, circumstance and principle combined to propel Gunn into a new specialty. Disillusioned by skyrocketing malpractice judgments, he abandoned obstetrics in 1985, just as women's clinics in the region—which were having trouble finding doctors to perform abortions—increasingly had need of his services. "I remember him so many times saying, 'If I don't do it, who's going to?' " says K.B. Kohls, administrator of the Beacon Women's Center in Montgomery, where Gunn had worked since the clinic opened in 1986. For Gunn, choice was the issue. "If someone came in and she was unsure, he would sit down and talk to her," says Brianne Dorsey, the administrator at the Pensacola clinic. "And a lot of times she would leave without the procedure." Circuit-riding six days a week meant many nights far from home, and the long hours on the road were especially difficult for Gunn, whose leg would begin throbbing with pain. "He told me, 'I hurl all the time, but I've got to do this,' " says David, who sometimes accompanied his father when he traveled so that the two could spend more time together. "He loved to help people."

Out of deference to his parents' religious beliefs, which include opposition to abortion, Gunn had not told them or his siblings exactly what he was doing. Diane, a mental-health nurse in Lexington, Ky., had guessed, but the rest of the family were taken by surprise. "I didn't know about the clinics until I heard it on CNN," says his oldest brother, Peter III. "But I don't want this turned into a forum on abortion. When your brother's been murdered. all you know is that your brother's been murdered."

For doctors and staff workers at abortion clinics around the country. however, the killing did have a larger meaning. And for many, especially for those in Pensacola, the response was to take heart from Gunn's refusal, despite all the threats, to back away from what he clearly regarded as a profound professional obligation. "I don't want them to know I'm frightened, but I am," says Mary Paula Leonard. "But I'm not going to let them accomplish what they want to accomplish.

BILL HEWITT
DON SIDER and CINDY DAMPIER in Pensacola, AMY ESKIND in Nashville and GAIL WESCOTT in Eufaula

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