The year was 1976. While the nation was gearing for a bicentennial celebration, a young obstetrics and gynecology resident at Vanderbilt University successfully performed the first Zavanelli maneuver -- a last resort treatment used when an infant's shoulders become stuck during delivery. When a baby's shoulders became stuck after its head had emerged, David Gunn, the young resident, gently pushed the baby back into the mother's vagina and then immediately delivered the baby via Caesarean section. The procedure is more appropriately known as the Gunn Zavanelli-O'Leary maneuver, named after the doctors who developed and performed it.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University and the University of Kentucky Medical School, the Dr. Gunn went to work as an ob/gyn at a public hospital in Brewton, AL. The idealistic Gunn elected to live in a poor, rural community where no other OB/GYN was practicing because, according to The New York Times, it had the highest infant-mortality rate in the United States. A statistic he hoped to change. Although he was initially a specialist in infertility, when a local clinic asked for his help because it couldn't find a doctor who would perform abortions, Gunn agreed.
His empathy for the young mothers and because virtually no other doctors were willing the help them, led Gunn to eventually focus his medical practice solely on abortions. He traveled across Alabama, Georgia, and Florida -- often 1000 miles per week -- providing an unpopular service in communities that lacked reliable abortion providers. He practiced medicine across the Southeast, seeing patients in Mobile, Fort Walton, Columbus, Pensacola, Montgomery, Birmingham, Tallahassee, Savannah, and Orlando.
Pensacola was called "the Selma of the abortion rights movement", notable for its pro-life violence. In the spring of 1984, an abortion clinic was bombed and then, six months later, was bombed again on Christmas Day. The offices of two Pensacola doctors were also bombed that same Christmas. The bomber called it "a gift to Jesus on his birthday".
John Burt -- a former KKK member and founder of Our Father's House, a shelter for unwed mothers -- was the local pro-life extremist leader in Pensacola. In 1986, John Burt invaded the Ladies Center, slamming the clinic's director, Linda Taggart, against a wall before trashing the clinic with three accomplices. In 1988, Burt and John Brockhoeft, a man convicted of arson against a clinic in Columbus, OH, were apprehended with a trunkful of pipe bomb materials after parking in a lot across the street from the Ladies Center. Burt served jail time for these incidents. He also demonstrated in support of two young couples who bombed three clinics.
Fast forward to March 10, 1993. John Burt is leading a right-to-life demonstration, sponsored by Rescue America, in front of the Pensacola Women's Medical Service Clinic. Inflamed by Burt's rhetoric, Michael F. Griffin lurked near the back door of the clinic. As Dr. Gunn entered the clinic via this door, Michael Griffin rushed up behind Dr. Gunn and shot him three times in the back. Gunn died two hours later during emergency surgery. Griffin immediately surrendered to police.
Within an hour of the killing, Rescue America, a Houston-based group for which Mr. Burt served as the Florida leader, issued a statement requesting that donations for Mr. Griffin's family be sent to Our Father's House, another of Mr. Burt's organizations. Don Treshman, the group's national director, said:
We don't condone killing an abortionist, but we don't condemn it either.
Matt Trewhella, a pro-life extremist involved with the group Missionaries to the Unborn, said he:
would not condemn someone who killed Hitler's doctors ... and neither will I condemn Michael Griffin.
The NY Times had a different perspective in their editorial.
This murder was the latest escalation in a crescendo of violence by anti-abortion activists. In the name of "life," the anti-abortion army has bombed or set fire to more than 100 clinics over the past 15 years, invaded more than 300 and vandalized more than 400. Last month in Corpus Christi, Tex., its arsonists leveled a clinic and three nearby buildings. It has stalked medical personnel, used their photographs on "Wanted for Murder" posters, forced physicians to wear bulletproof vests and work behind steel shutters. It has also driven many doctors out of their abortion practice.
Gunn was a recognizable figure partly because Operation Rescue, another anti-abortion extremist group, had put his face and phone number on a "Wanted" poster and displayed it at a rally in Alabama.
John Burt became a central figure in Michael Griffin's trial. In fact, Griffin's defense was that Burt brainwashed him with videos, books, prayer sessions, use of an effigy of Dr. Gunn, and even a funeral for a pair of aborted fetuses. Burt's response?
I've shown those videos and literature to thousands of people who never killed anyone. I would respect Michael a lot more if he had stuck with his original defense, which was that he acted for God when he shot Dr. Gunn.
Paul Hill would often participate in protests with John Burt. Hill went on the Phil Donahue Show and called Dr. Gunn's murder a "justifiable homicide". A little over a year after Dr. Gunn's murder, Hill got into the act himself, killing Dr. John Britton (who took over as clinic doctor after Gunn's death) and James Barrett in Pensacola in July 1994. Hill was sentenced to death but never expressed remorse for his crime.
In June 2003, Burt's faithful were left in disbelief, when the 65-year-old was charged with molesting a 15-year-old resident of Our Father's House, the shelter he ran for unwed mothers. A month later, Burt pleaded not guilty to five counts of criminal conduct: four lewd or lascivious molestation counts, and another for slipping the 15-year-old a handwritten invitation to have sex with him. Local authorities said that after Burt's arrest, other residents of Our Father's House -- a Christian-based boarding school for pregnant teens -- came forward with similar stories of sexual abuse.
In May 2004, Burt was sentenced to 18 years in prison. In January of this year, Burt lost his final appeal in the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal.