Dr. William F. Harrison died Friday, September, 2010 in Fayetteville Arkansas. For more than 30 years, he provided gynecological and abortion services to women from all over Arkansas. When he closed his clinic in July, 2010 because of his illness, a crowd of townspeople showed up to honor him.
Dr. Harrison never imagined that he would spend so much of his life providing abortions. He spoke of the day in 1964 that he received his acceptance into medical school and that his second child was born. He and other family members and friends were with his wife soon after the delivery, and he remembered the joy in the room. That is when he decided he wanted to specialize in obstetrics. He imagined a gynecology practice as an adjunct to delivering babies.
But several things happened to change that. While he was finishing his Ob/Gyn rotation during his third year of medical school, he was assigned a woman in her 40s who already had a number of children, and could barely keep them fed. She had a large abdominal mass which she said was a tumor. He quickly realized she was pregnant, and he and his resident went to tell her. He never forgot her response. She began to cry, and said “Oh God, doctor, I was hoping it was cancer.” The desperation of a woman who would rather have cancer than be pregnant made a lasting impression on him.
During his residency, he saw girls and women coming in after botched abortions. This was before abortions were legal, and those who either had illegal abortions or tried to self-abort often came in with serious bleeding or infections. Some had serious conditions as a result that stayed with them for a lifetime; others died.
This was the reality before Roe v. Wade. Women with money could go where abortion was legal. Most women faced lesser choices: find an illegal abortionist who might or might not know what he was doing, try to self-abort, have the baby. And there was shame involved. A pregnant teenager was sent away to a home for unwed mothers where she would not be seen by neighbors, and where she very likely had no say in what would happen to her baby. Adoption was the only option.
When Harrison began to practice in Fayetteville, however, he was able to concentrate on obstetrics as he had planned. There were several other doctors who already provided safe and legal abortions, and if they had continued, he would have continued with a regular ob/gyn practice. But as opposition to abortion grew, and created negativity and danger for doctors who did abortions, the others dropped the practice. He began to get calls from desperate women and he remembered the woman from his time in medical school.
Eventually he received so many calls that he had to decide whether to continue delivering babies or providing abortions. He chose to continue the service nobody else was doing.
Ronald Reagan was the first politician to call himself “pro-life.” The 1980’s saw the increased politicization of abortion. Anti-abortion groups mobilized specifically to make abortions illegal, chipping away one regulation at a time. Sometimes they became disruptive or even violent. When abortion became legal, most safe abortions were performed in hospitals. Now most are performed in free-standing clinics, often where other gynecology services are also available – pap smears, family planning services – and often these clinics, like those run by Planned Parenthood, are the only place where women can get these services locally.
This all affected Dr. Harrison’s practice as well. During the 1980’s, demonstrators began gathering outside his clinic. He was threatened, and once his clinic was firebombed. But all this had the effect of gaining support for him from neighbors. Law enforcement took the threats seriously and protected him. When his friend Dr. George Tiller was killed while ushering in his church, he criticized the authorities in Wichita for not protecting him. He became a vocal advocate for legal abortions as violence escalated against all those involved in abortion services. He reported any communications from people who seemed fanatical enough to commit acts of violence, trying to stop them proactively.
In 2007 he began to write diaries for Daily Kos, and wrote not only about abortion, but also about religion, atheism, Notre Dame football, politics. He knew Hillary Clinton, and supported her for president during her campaign. After Barack Obama won the nomination, he supported him.
He closed his clinic in July, 2010 because of his illness. He had worked to train young doctors in his practice, but was unable to find anyone willing to take over his practice; the dangers were too great. Abortion is legal in this country, but those who seek one and those who perform one are under assault. With the closing of Dr. Harrison’s clinic, there is only one abortion provider in the state of Arkansas.
Arkansas is not the only state where this is true. Missouri is one of the others; women who do not live in St. Louis have to travel, sometimes long distances. Many states have parental notification laws, with a rather random way of seeking permission from a court. Sometimes there is a waiting period of 24 hours, which may put the woman in the position of needing a place to stay which they cannot afford. There are volunteer organizations that work to ameliorate this difficulty, but not everywhere, and not enough.
There also are so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are run by anti-abortion groups. They get women inside and give them information and misinformation designed to get them to continue their pregnancies. They are fighting new regulations saying that they must post clearly outside their centers what services the provide, so those entering will know that they do not provide abortion or birth control.
Some states are using their power to regulate health and safety to put undue burdens on clinics such as making them conform to hospital rather than clinic guidelines. Some have been forced to close for things like the width of their hallways, which in hospitals need to be wide enough for two wheel chairs.
We are going back to the days when Dr. Harrison was in training. We have already seen girls paying men to beat them up to induce abortion. We will see more of the botched abortions of the old days. Dr. Harrison had it right. Abortions did not begin with Roe. Abortions have been going on since we lived in caves. The issue is how many women will die from them.
Dr. Harrison was a good man. He will be missed.