Pro-Life Turns Deadly: The impact of violence on America's anti-abortion movement

Newsweek Magazine January 26, 1998.
By James Risen and Judy L. Thomas

Michael Griffin fervently believed that an accidental encounter he had with abortion doctor David Gunn was a sign from God. On the morning of March 5,1993, Griffin, a 31-year-old factory worker in Pensacola, Florida, and a zealous follower of local anti-abortion reader John Burt, pulled into a Pensacola Exxon station, and there was Gunn. The doctor, well known to anti-abortion activists in the area, was sitting in his car drinking coffee and reading a newspaper before heading to work at The Ladies Center, the local clinic that had so often served as ground zero for the antiabortion movement in the South. 

"I thought it was Providence," Griffin now says, revealing his meeting with Gunn for the first time in an exclusive prison interview. "I knew he was getting ready to go kill children that day. I asked the Lord what he wanted me to do. And he told me to tell him that he had one more chance. 

"Griffin walked over to Gunn's car and tapped on the window. "I looked him right in the face and said, 'David Gunn, the Lord told me to tell you that you have one more chance.' He just looked at me.

"For five hours that afternoon, Griffin stood outside The Ladies Center waiting for Gunn to leave. Griffin recalls: "I felt like I had another word from the Lord for him: that he was accused and convicted of murder and that his sentence was Genesis 9:6 'Whosoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed.'" 

"Then, right before he got in his car, I said, 'David Gunn, are you going to kill children next week?' " Griffin claims that Gunn replied by saying, "Yeah. Probably." 

Five days later, Griffin fired three .38caliber bullets into Gunn's back as the doctor got out of his car in the parking lot behind the offices of the city's other abortion clinic, Pensacola Women's Medical Services. 

By drawing blood for the first time in the nation's war over abortion, Michael Griffin changed forever the shape and direction of the organized anti-abortion movement, then reaching a new peak of clinic blockades and other protests. Ironically, it had been buttressed only two months earlier by the Supreme Court's landmark Braydecision that expanded the movements right to use nonviolent civil disobedience. 

But Griffin's murder of Gunn in March 1993 ended all hope that the movement could regain credibility or influence through nonviolent civil disobedience. Griffin ripped back the curtain to reveal the dark side of the movement's soul, and there were no balancing forces within the movement pushing for peace. 

Paul Hill, a fundamentalist preacher with a fixed and eerie smile, was so excited by Michael Griffin's actions that he was bursting with desire to talk about it. On March 12, he walked to a pay phone, and within 20 minutes he had a producer from "Donahue" on the line. Hill was not a prominent leader in the anti-abortion movement at the time, but his pro-Griffin zeal was apparently just what the "Donahue" producers wanted for a show on anti-abortion violence. "Donahue" eagerly jumped at the chance to put Hill on the air, and on March 15, he appeared on the show with an abortion doctor, two abortion rights activists and David Gunn's son. Hill proclaimed on national television that the murder of David Gunn was "as good as Doctor Mengele being killed." 

It's not too strong to say that "Donahue" created Paul Hill as a national symbol of anti-abortion extremism. Hill soon realized that the more outrageous his statements, the more attention he could garner both from the media and within the anti-abortion movement, and he became associated with slogans like "execute murderers, abortionists, accessories." It was not long before he was being asked by interviewers and by other activists the inevitable, gnawing question: if you believe so strongly in killing doctors, why don't you do it yourself? The answer came quickly. 

On June 10, 1994, two weeks after President Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) law—prompted largely by Griffin's murder of Gunn and the attempted murder of another abortion doctor, m Wichita, Kansas, by a housewife named Shelley Shannon—Paul Hill put the new legislation to a test outside The Ladies Center of Pensacola. As the clinic director, Linda Taggart, tried to perform a sonogram, Hill stood outside and screamed, "Mommy, Mommy, don't murder me." Pensacola police told Taggart she could have Hill arrested for violating the local noise ordinance, but she wanted him charged with violating the new FACE law instead. When a FBI agent came to look into the matter, however, the agent refused to arrest Hill. A second screaming assault by Hill was also ignored by the Department of Justice. Justice apparently did not want to have its first court test of FACE in a conservative Southern state like Florida. 

After a three-day seminar m Kansas City on how to become a full-time anti-abortion activist in mid-July 1994, everything began to click into place for Hill. "I was thinking about who might take action next," Hill recalled for this book in an exclusive death-row interview in the Florida State Prison. "And then I began to think, 'Well, what would happen if I did it?' And the more I thought about it, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do." Hill continued to think about his mission for the next few days; after fasting, he says, "I decided that I was going to do it." 

Early on the morning of Friday, July 29, Hill finally put his plan into motion. He arrived at the clinic at about 6:45, concealing his shotgun in a large tube that normally contained the posters he used for his protests, and then slid it into the grass. At 7:27 a.m., Hill's wait was over. Abortion doctor John Bayard Britton arrived at the clinic, a passenger in the blue Nissan pickup of James Barrett, his volunteer escort. Barrett's wife, June, was sitting behind Britton in the jump seat. 

Hill calmly recalls the chilling details of those few seconds: "They pulled in past me, and I stepped over to where the gun was in the grass, which put the fence between me and them. Then I picked up the weapon and stepped out from behind the fence and fired three times directly at the truck. I aimed directly at the abortionist, but the driver was directly between me and him, so their heads were almost blocking one another." The shotgun blasts moved James Barrett out of the way; he fell out of the pickup, fatally wounded, "and so the abortionist was unprotected," recalls Hill. 

"I fired directly into him, five rounds, and then laid the shotgun down and walked away, slowly, with my hands down to my side," Hill says. Both Britton and Barrett were dead, and Jane Barrett was wounded. 

Hill now says that although he intended to kill Britton, he knew James Barrett could pose a problem. "And so I realized that if I was going to have any assurance of killing the abortionist, I was probably going to have to kill him, too." Hill says he had no idea June Barrett would be in the pickup that day, but he felt no remorse over shooting her: "She was part of the movement. She was there to protect him and to support and lend aid and encouragement to him. So it would certainly be justified if she had been killed. I wasn't going to turn aside from my intent to save those children from them." 

Hill's crime provided the coup de grace to anti-abortion activism—though the issue itself remained politically potent. Operation Rescue was perceived as little more than a violence-prone cult. America's tolerance for clinic blockades and other antiabortion civil disobedience abruptly ended. 

Attorney General Janet Reno was also finally prodded into creating a Justice Department task force to investigate whether there was a nationwide conspiracy behind the violence. But despite many connections among extremists—encouraging one another with prayers, letters and telephone calls, reprinting various tracts, even offering a place to stay when needed—and despite the techniques of terrorism described in "Army of God," a manual that circulated among them, authorities were unable to prove that there was a national conspiracy behind the violence. "Unless there's specific knowledge that someone's going to commit a crime, you don't have a criminal conspiracy," observes Cheryl Glenn, an ATF special agent in Portland, Ore., and lead investigator in the Shannon case. 

Still, John O'Keefe, a long-forgotten father of anti-abortion "rescue" protests could only look with horror on the blooddrenched state of the pro-life movement he had helped found. "The direction of the movement?" O'Keefe wonders aloud. "I think it is a disaster." 


This article was excerpted for Newsweek from--"Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War," by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas. Published by Basic Books, a division of Perseus Book, 1998

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