I Won’t Back Down

Please grant me the indulgence of a slight digression before getting to the meat of my post.  I have never been one for personal theme songs, couples taking ownership of a particular song from a particular place and calling it “our song”, and  I never believed in the “soundtrack of your life” bullshit slogan we get sold by Apple or some other company asking we consume their individualized music player cutting us off from the music’s true power which is to be consumed—not in the sense of bought in some meaningless disposable manner—but to be collectively consumed as one consumes food, nourishing your being and providing limitless sources of inspiration rivaling the written and spoken word in its power to move people to “seek, to find, and not to yield” (thanks, Tennyson).

In fact, music is one of my first artistic loves though I am not a musician.  It rivals reading and the written word in my mind, and fuels a long standing self-debate which should not matter in any capital T truth sense, but I find the question haunting—for me at least—and I have found how one answers the question reveals something of the soul for lack of a better word since I do not believe in an eternal soul.  The debate topic, my friends, is which of the following is the purest art:  music, painting—or some other graphic design, or the word?  Pure is probably a poor choice of words as it is a relative term and has no meaning we do not assign it so in simplest terms, I struggle to determine which one is better and find others’ answers to the conundrum particularly interesting and revealing.

Joyce argued the written word is the most powerful, and therefore, the purest art.  If you ask any self- respecting Christian, told since time immemorial that God is the word and the word is God, I believe they would agree with Joyce; however, Tolkien imagined the world’s creation through the singing of angelic type beings which is kind of ironic when you think about it since Tolkien envisioned the choral creation in writing!

Over the years I’ve vacillated on the topic but more and more find myself falling on the musical side of the debate as its motivational power transcends language.  Though great works find global appeal via translations, any bilingual reader knows any particular work’s power diminishes when not digested in the original language.  Music, though, requires no translation or modernization:  there is no New English Version of Beethoven’s Eroica for example, and if you play “Imagine” or any number of excellent modern songs most folks respond much more positively than, say, if you read a passage from Macbeth to an alien.  One of the proofs for my side of the argument is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  When, in the movie, we finally established first contact, we “spoke” through music, not the written or spoken word.

I apologize, again, for the theoretical introduction and want to get down to what in the world all of the above has to do with abortion and my story.


1)      Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around:


Though I do not believe in a personal theme song, my dad [Dr. David Gunn] became irrevocably associated with Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  I remember the first time I heard the song in 1989 and I owned a copy of “Full Moon Fever”.  I argue it is one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s for a number of reasons, but I have digressed enough and am not writing rock criticism.  Dad loved “I Won’t Back Down” and sang it to himself frequently.  Petty’s ode to personal strength and fortitude hit in the summer of 1989 which, oddly enough, is when Christian Terrorism was in its embryonic phase from the standpoint of most of their terror attacks, at this point anyway, were limited to physical damage to clinics and intimidation while also employing massive acts of civil disobedience.

By late 1992-93, antis targeted dad with wanted posters, stalked him, staged protests at his workplace, and otherwise eviscerated any shred of privacy he enjoyed—which wasn’t much given we lived in a very small Alabama town at the time where gossip ran through town like the river from which it took its name.  In a show of personal strength and defiance, during an anti-abortion protest on Roe v. Wade day outside of one of the clinics on his circuit, dad stood in front of the antis, sang “Happy Birthday to You” to the Roe decision, and then played Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” to the antis as a means of showing his personal commitment to provide quality health care to women even in the face of intimidation and terror.  Of course, local media picked up on the event, and a local paper ran an article with a photo of dad antagonizing those who terrorized him, and his co-workers, for years.


2)      You can stand me up to the gates of hell, but I won’t back down:


Twenty days later, dad lay bleeding out on the ground outside a clinic in Pensacola, FL becoming the Abortion War’s first casualty.   Soon thereafter Petty’s anthem became a rallying cry for the pro-choice movement.  Folks played the song at vigils, protests, and speaking engagements.  What was a song I immensely enjoyed, became both a personal motivator and a painful reminder of death.  I quickly became a poor substitute for my father’s courage and attempted to act as his surrogate.  Though I was no doctor and could not actually fill his void, I tried, in my own small way, to keep the providers’ travails in front of a public who did not necessarily want to understand, for any number of reasons, what doctors and clinic staff experienced on a daily basis.

For six to seven years, I traveled to various cities—wherever I was asked to go—to tell dad’s, and by proxy other providers’, story.  My intent was to galvanize support for the providers and to tell those who thought “it can’t happen here,” that it can and will if you do not get involved, act, and act now.  Over the course of the 90s, Christian terrorists murdered more doctors, and violence spread northward disproving the widespread belief doctor murder was a Southern thing.  During the 90s, the choice movement grew and was highly visible.  We saw court and legislative victories in the form of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance Act in mid-1994 as well as a positive ruling by the Supreme Court in the NOW v. Scheidler case which was subsequently overturned during the farce we now know as the Bush years.  We met each act of violence with a large public outcry and response.  Roughly 800,000 people attended the March for Women’s Lives on April 25, 1994 in Washington DC including myself as a speaker.

As the 90s ended and the Bush era began, abortion, though still a target of Christian Fascists, ceded ground to the now eternal War on Terror taking a backseat to Bush’s neverending wars, civil rights abuses, and war crimes.  Though the struggle—and Christian Terror–continued, it went largely ignored by a press preoccupied with terrorists abroad while those of the homegrown ilk were allowed to regroup and gain courage from the first admittedly Evangelical President.


3)      Well I know what’s right, I got just one life; In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around but I’ll stand my ground and I won’t back down:


Following a highly abridged overview of the past 20 years in an attempt to keep your attention and this post a respectably attention holding length, I ask you to look around you to see where we are as of mid-2013.  Many Republican controlled states—mine included—passed and/or are preparing to pass regulations designed to severely cripple a clinic’s ability to remain open while at the same time making it personally intrusive and harder than ever for women to seek the medical care they feel they need.  Whether being forced to undergo a rape-like act via vaginal probe, an onerous waiting period, propaganda influenced “counseling”, or being forced to watch an ultrasound, Christian Fascists have succeeded in making a legal medical procedure virtually unobtainable in many Red states via intrusive and overly restrictive regulations. It’s funny how the party of regulatory constraint never met a regulation it did not like when abortion—or birth control or sex education for that matter–is concerned, and how the “libertarian” Tea Party Racist/Terrorists love liberty as long as it doesn’t apply to women, minorities, or the poor.

Hell, in my state alone, where there used to be multiple clinics in three of the major cities—or at least six to nine clinics statewide–according to abortion. com, there are only two clinics for the entire state.  These last bastions of reproductive freedom risk closure due to new regulations making their way through my state’s state legislature.  In Mississippi, were there were clinics in Jackson and Gulfport at the very least, there is now one in Jackson.  Likewise, Tennessee is served by only two clinics:  one in Nashville and one in Bristol (eight hours apart at least for the southern geographically challenged).  Also, there is only one operational clinic for the women of Arkansas.

Think of the implications of the above for a few moments.  Imagine yourself a minimum wage earner in rural Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, or Tennessee who elects to undergo an abortion; in order to get the medical care you desire, you must travel at the very least 60 miles to the nearest clinic and more than likely longer.  If you are unfortunate enough to live on the Gulf Coast of Alabama or Mississippi, your travel time to the nearest clinic exponentiates drastically and may be sufficient, on its own, to force you into motherhood.  Aside from the travel obstacle, you also have significant economic challenges if you elect to travel the underground abortion railroad as you must lose at least a full day’s wage, waste at least another few days’ wages and fuel, and then endure the cost of a hotel plus the cost of the procedure itself; therefore, your medical procedure—since it isn’t covered by insurance, Medicaid, or military insurance—can cost you a month’s salary.  Given the above, it is blatantly clear for many women in the United States, though abortion is technically legal, it is not available as a viable health care option.  These obstacles do not account for the ever reducing number of providers who do not view abortion services as a career option due to the threat of violence.  Again, though abortion is legal in the USA, the Christian Fascists through terrorism, regulatory intimidation, and simple misogyny have effectively banned the procedure for many women across the county.


4)      Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out; hey I will stand my ground and I won’t back down:


The above encapsulates a small number of the travails women seeking abortion in 2013 face.  There are many reasons for these developments.  One, choice groups cede the local fights in Red States and instead focus on a national agenda. Two, politicians and the media cannot say the word abortion much less report on it in a way that reflects the actual disposition of the nation on the topic.  If one simply watched corporate news, you would think most people are against abortion while the converse is obviously and undeniably true in poll after poll.  Three, and this is most important in my opinion, we lack grass roots direct action to counter the actions of the Christian Terrorists.  We do this for a number of reasons primarily out of a combination of fear and shame.  Fear of how a strong stance on abortion will impact our friendships, family relations, and children as well as a shame or guilt some may feel due to their own religious beliefs.  We must, though, have the courage to educate the public as to the true reality.  Namely, we significantly outnumber those against abortion, and we must have the confidence and perseverance to unabashedly engage the public, teach the scientific truth, and demonstrate our determination to win this war on women.  Not because it is, in simplest terms, the right action but because it is just.

In furtherance of these goals, we must reorganize and have the courage to “stand our ground” and “not back down” as our children’s rights depend upon what we do now, not what we might do in the future.  I have a personal stake in this not only due to dad’s death and my own personal involvement in the past, but I owe it to my daughter to ensure she enjoys self-determination and true liberation.  If the Christian Right has it their way, by the time my daughter hits puberty, after suffering through abstinence only sex education, should she be “legitimately raped” to quote Mr. Akin, she would be forced to bear the rapist’s child.  How utterly intolerable, ludicrous, and goddamned unacceptable is that statement?  How important, then, is it we re-energize, re-engage, and rejuvenate our conviction to win this fight and win it now—and we absolutely can and will win if we take proper action at this crucial moment!

To this end, I want to announce a project I’m supporting and ask that you support as well.  Two groups of activists embarking from San Francisco and New York City are planning a freedom ride style journey across the United States set to kick off with joint rallies at each city of origin tentatively set for July 23.  The riders will tour and engage the public in areas of the country impacted most by the draconian anti- abortion regulations currently making their way through state houses across the country.  Both groups will converge on Bismark, North Dakota by 8/1 to protest the effective date of North Dakota’s fetal heartbeat legislation which goes into full effect 1 August 2013.

I believe actions such as these are not only needed but required if we as a movement are going to regain the needed momentum to re-establish our strong and solid footing in our struggle against the well- funded and connected Christian Fascists.  If you have any sense of history, you know that only through mass direct action do the voiceless gain voice, the powerless gain power, and the professed ideals of our nation actualize in reality.  Building a national movement is paramount and failing to do so is tantamount to surrender; however, I know we will not surrender to threat, intimidation, and violence because we have righteous conviction to engage the armies of the night and prevail.  To this end, I urge you to review this statement published by the Riders’ organizing committee and lend your signature/support to the growing movement by following the attached link:


Lastly, I appeal to everyone to reflect objectively on the statement, sign it, and lend what support you can.  Give money to fund the riders, join the caravan when they come through your town, and even if you simply donate your signature to the statement:  that alone is taking action.  There are those of us in the movement who have been engaged for a long time—many of you much longer than myself.  You know abortion is not a foul and dirty word.  You know attaching shame to the procedure only aids the antis by keeping it in the closet and attaching a scarlet letter type stigma to what should be a private matter between patient and doctor.  You understand the effectiveness and utility of direct action because you organized and led it in the past.  You also understand sacrifice because some of you do it daily by choosing to walk into a clinic under threat of death after witnessing many of your colleagues suffer death for continuing to make abortion services a safe option for women across the country.  I know all of the above from direct experience after suffering through what the Christian terrorists did to my family.  We cannot allow it to happen to another.  We must draw a line and we must not back down.

I started this post with a lighthearted philosophical debate and have framed my essay using song.  To be fair to both sides, let me offer the following words of Walt Whitman as a benediction of sorts:


O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;

Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;

Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;


Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here—that life exists, and identity;

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

Now is the time to ask ourselves about our verse and to determine what impact it has to the powerful play.  My dad’s was “I Won’t Back Down.”  Is it not time that we make it ours as well?