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(DV) Bills: Whitman's Last Victim's Right to Die







Whitman's Last Victim's Right to Die
by E.R. Bills
January 26, 2006

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On August 1, 1966 David H. Gunby was a 23-year-old engineering student at the University of Texas, studying at the campus library. When he finished studying and went to leave, he realized he’d left a book behind. He went back to get it and then exited the campus library into the Tower courtyard. As he crossed the courtyard, he became one of Charles Whitman’s first victims. Whitman shot him in the lower left side of his back.


As he lay on the ground wounded, he could see Whitman up in the Tower. When other students attempted to run out and help him, Gunby waved them off. He knew Whitman would fire at anyone else that appeared out in the open.


By the end of the day, 17 people (including Whitman) were dead or dying and 33 were wounded. When Gunby finally made it to the hospital, doctor’s found that Whitman’s bullet had severed his small intestine. As doctors performed surgery to repair his small intestine, they also discovered that Gunby only had one kidney and that it, too, had been damaged by bullet fragments.


After the shooting, Gunby never fully recovered. He suffered repeated kidney problems and eventually received a kidney transplant. His body rejected the new kidney and he almost died.


Gunby finished his degree and settled here in Ft. Worth. He raised two children with his wife and worked at General Dynamics. For the last 27 years of his life, Gunby endured kidney dialysis three times a week. He was in constant pain, but it didn’t stop him from being a good provider, father and husband.


On November 7, 2001, Gunby decided to stop dialysis. He was pronounced dead at Harris Methodist Hospital on November 14. He was Whitman’s 18th victim.


There’s no way anyone who knew David Gunby or carefully read the preceding passages about him could consider him anything less a courageous man. Life dealt him a tragic hand and he did the best he could. And when he finally wore out and didn’t want to subject himself to the constant suffering any longer, he arranged to end his life. 


To social and religious conservatives, the way David Gunby ended his life was a sin. They believe that only their God should have control or authority over whether or not we live or die. On January 17, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court thankfully disagreed with them.


The 6-3 Supreme Court decision rejected the Bush administration’s challenge to the state of Oregon’s “right-to-die” law and ruled that former Attorney General John Ashcroft had “overstepped” his authority when he attempted to castigate Oregon doctors for assisting terminally ill persons in their efforts to end their lives. The decision also comes not long after the Republican-led Congress’ intervention into the Terri Schiavo case last year, which also resulted in an ideological setback for social conservatives when the Supreme Court balked on taking up the case.


Apparently, the conservative stalwarts who I like to call the “force-to-live” faction just don’t get the point. Suffering folks like David Gunby are peacefully abridging their existences without God’s permission, and the “force-to-live” faction just can’t allow them that right.


Their stance demands vigorous opposition and I’m eager to oblige.


First, if the “force-to-live” faction really has absolute faith in God’s control over human life and death, why don’t they skip the pleasantries and lobby to abolish doctors and medicine altogether? If our lives are truly in God’s hands, how can medicine help? If God has decided it’s either of our times to go, wouldn’t a doctor simply be interfering in God’s plan? Was it God’s plan for Charles Whitman to blow a hole in David Gunby’s back? Was it God’s plan for David Gunby to spend the last twenty-seven years of his life enduring the hellish agony of kidney dialysis three times a week? If you were David Gunby, wouldn’t you have had enough of God’s plan? Could anyone honestly blame him for taking matters into his own hands?


Second, why do Christians have such a problem with suicide? Jesus Christ was a great guy and the accounts we have of his existence certainly make it worth emulating. But the lives of lots of people and prophets are worth emulating. What made the early Jewish religions different was it’s early constituents refusal to compromise their existence by abandoning their beliefs. The Jews at Masada chose to hurl themselves over the cliff rather than proclaim the Roman emperor their god -- down to the last woman and child. They decided to commit suicide rather than abdicate their religious faith, and such acts put them on the map. In the end such devotion and fidelity overcame even the Romans.  They couldn’t strong-arm a people who opted for untimely death over compromised life. What was David Gunby’s life if not physically compromised?  


Third, the term “liberty” in the phrase Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is not the property or jurisdiction of self-righteous religious affiliations. It’s the established right and freedom of each and every individual American. One of the great things about America is that no one can tell you how to live your life. For the most part, you’re free to do as you like. If no one can tell you how to live your life, why should anyone be allowed to tell you how you can end it?


The recent attempts by the Republican Party’s “force-to-live” faction to usurp and restrict existential freedoms should be met with defiance and scorn. Who are they to decide whether someone like David Gunby had suffered enough? 


E. R. Bills is a writer who lives in Ft. Worth, Texas. His recent works have appeared in Fort Worth Weekly and Flashquake.

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