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Roe v Wade: The Never—Ending Debate?
Fayetteville physician discusses career, coming battles
Written by Richard S. Drake
Ever since his appearance on ABC's Nightline earlier this year, Fayetteville's Dr. William Harrison has been the subject of numerous letters to the editor, most condemning him for his decision to provide abortion services to his patients. "Baby Killer" seems to be the sobriquet most often hurled in his direction by those who have never met him.
The sole abortion provider in Northwest Arkansas, Harrison takes issue with that accusation. A gray-haired man in his early 70's, Harrison has been practicing medicine for almost forty years. Despite the claims of many abortion foes, Harrison doesn't believe that women enter a decision to end a pregnancy lightly. While he acknowledges that abortion does, indeed, end a life, he does not believe that a fetus or a developing embryo has the same moral standing as a more fully-developed child.
"What makes a human being is the mind," he says. "The fetal mind doesn't begin to function in any great significant way like a human being until about the 27th or 28th week."
As he himself has written, "It is only those who stand outside and condemn the women and families who are faced with these dilemmas who take lightly the decisions made in these straits and trivialize the circumstances in which they are made."
He says that there is a lot of misinformation about abortion spread around. "If you look up ‘abortion' on Google, you'll find all sorts of shit. Just a tremendous amount of misinformation." In fact, there are a number of websites that attack Harrison personally.
He says that the decision to have an abortion is a difficult one for most women. He estimates that his office provides on average 800 abortions per year, though he feels that the number will go up this year, since the closing of a clinic in Springfield. Missouri.
Of course, now that the South Dakota legislature has banned abortion in most cases (including in cases of rape or incest), the long-standing debate over abortion - never far from the public's mind - will be argued even more intensely this year. "It's going to make for an interesting year," Harrison says. "I'm sure it will go before the Supreme Court pretty quickly."
He notes that a large number of right-wing judges have been appointed to the District Courts in the last few years. Harrison believes that if George Bush is able to appoint another supreme court justice, "Abortion will be gone. I think there is no doubt about that.
" I think there is a high probability that it will be so wounded, that it's going to be irrelevant anyway."
Harrison says that most American doctors have never seen a complication from an abortion, so they consider themselves to be "pro-life." But, he asks, "What will happen when they suddenly start seeing a lot of patients like we saw years and years ago?"
He goes on to say that, "A lot of them think that the women they will see will deserve that," meaning that the physicians will indulge in moralizing. He also says that he is amazed at how many young doctors today are fundamentalist Christians.
"Doctors used to be hell of a lot smarter than that, and I don't know what has happened to us."
In his essay, "Why I provide abortions" - which can be viewed online at www.fayettevilleclinic.com - Harrison writes about his first experience with abortion. In 1967, as a third year medical student, he found himself assigned to the case of a woman in her forties, who had a large abdominal mass.
Harrison soon determined that his patient was pregnant, a situation which did not please her. He described the situation in which he and another doctor, both highly-educated white men, were standing alongside a woman who could barely afford to take care of the children she already had. There was an entire world separating them from this woman.
Responding to the news that she was pregnant, she whispered, "Oh, God, Doctor, I was hoping it was cancer."
That encounter was enough to sew doubt in the mind of William Harrison, who might well have described himself at that time as "pro-life."
Harrison has been practicing medicine in Fayetteville since 1972, a year before Roe v Wade. talking about that period, he says, "The abortion laws in Arkansas were liberalized in 1969. Most people don't have any idea that happened.
"It was not easy to get an abortion, but if you jumped through the hoops you could get an abortion and Medicaid covered it back then. So the people who were wise enough could get an abortion without much problem. The people who were smart or medically sophisticated didn't have any problems."
But the very poor still had little recourse when they found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. He says that often women had "crazy things" done to them at that time. "There was a fellow in North Little Rock, a councilman, who used to put in a rubber catheter, like when you catheterize someone so that they can pee. He would put in this rubber catheter into their cervix, and tell them that when they started bleeding, they needed to go to the hospital, to the emergency room.
"By the time they got there, they were infected. Usually we finished the job in the operating room, but eventually we started an area at the emergency room so that we could put the patients in there and watch them for 24 hours. " He says that on average, five women a night would fill the rooms. He says this continued until the United States Supreme Court issued its Roe v Wade decision.
Many of the women suffered from high fevers, blood loss and uterine or pelvic infections, all as the result of self-induced or illegal abortions.
And after Roe v Wade? "In this area, when I came into practice in Fayetteville, there were three doctors doing abortions."
But Harrison says that he didn't perform abortions for the first two years he was in practice, because he had joined with another doctor who didn't want anything to do with abortions. But later, a friend brought in his 13 year-old daughter who was pregnant.
At first, Harrison declined to perform an abortion, saying that he didn't want to become known as the "local abortionist."
His friend replied, "Well, you're just a coward, aren't you?"
Between 1967 and the time of this conversation, Harrison had come to view abortion in a different light. He especially came to see things from the perspective of those who were not white, who were not financially well off, and did not have the advantages of those who were.
"I thought about that all night, "Harrison says, "and I called him the next morning and I said, ‘Bring your daughter in.'"
It was at this point that Harrison began providing abortions for women in Northwest Arkansas. "We didn't do many abortions," he adds. "Parkhill did most of the abortions, but we did a few."
But when he and another doctor moved to the present location at 1101 North College in Fayetteville in 1979, they set up a room where abortions could be performed. At that time there were 13 physicians in Northwest Arkansas who provided abortions - a far cry from 2006, when Harrison is the only abortion provider in the area.
By 1980s, in the midst of the Regan years, most of the clinics found themselves under protest. It was during this period when most of the other abortion providers in Northwest Arkansas stopped providing abortions. Around this time Harrison wrote an opinion piece about abortion for the Arkansas Gazette.
It was around this time that President Ronald Reagan indicated in a State of the Union address that he would consider giving a presidential pardon to anyone who was convicted of attacking an abortion clinic. "Suddenly this really stimulated a lot of activity, and in 1985 my column was published. I suddenly started having really heavy protesting. I was firebombed later that year."
Fortunately, not much damage occurred as result of the firebombing, though the building itself suffered smoke damage. The fire was in the basement of the offices, in one of the examining rooms. A neighbor was passing at the time, saw the smoke, and called the fire department.
Harrison estimates that it cost about $5000 to repair the damage caused by the bombing.
Other than the firebombing, protestors were basically non-violent during the 1980s - at least in Fayetteville. "Some of them were not bad, and some of them were militant and very aggressive."
There were also death threats. "We had a lot of people who called and said, ‘We're going to kill you." Harrison says that the calls were not just limited to his office phone, but that he received them at home, as well. Despite all of this, Harrison kept his home number in the telephone directory. The calls ceased in 1988.
These days, it is the rare day when protesters line the sidewalks outside his clinic. Occasionally small prayer groups meet on the sidewalk outside the building.
Due to the danger faced from protesters and death threats, many abortion providers retreated from offering abortions. Harrison found himself with an uncomfortable choice: to limit his practice to delivering babies, or to continue to his abortion services available to those in need.
Harrison concluded that it would be immoral to stop providing abortions, especially at a time when so many were abandoning the field.
Despite the claims that women are often seriously harmed by abortions, Harrison claims that he has only seen a handful of injuries due to abortions in the past 30 years.
Though his recent appearance on Nightline and a profile in the Arkansas-Democrat-Gazette have inspired many to pen letters condemning him, Harrison says that this is not a typical reaction his public stands. "I've had a lot of calls, and probably 20-1 are positive."
When women come to his clinic seeking an abortion, Harrison provides them with two booklets. One, entitled "Abortion: Making a Decision," is produced by the Arkansas Department of Health. The other is written by Harrison, and is entitled "Abortion! For me?"
Harrison says that there are "mistakes" in the book provided by the state of Arkansas. Referring to the two booklets, Harrison says, "I tell the patients that the state mandates that we offer this information, and that there are some errors in it. I think they are deliberate, because initially there was one error in the first one that came out.
"They asked me to help them with that, and I did. There was one error that was very minor, but when Huckabee became governor, we've had some significant ‘improvements' in this one, so I think it is deliberate."
Harrison informs his patients that there are errors in the booklet provided by the state, and if they do take it, they don't to read it, though it is required that he offer it to them. "If they do read it, to remember what I have written in my little booklet, and that my booklet is right."
Among the questions answered in the pamphlet written by Harrison include:
Is it dangerous to have an abortion?
Will I get Post Abortion Syndrome from having an abortion?
Am I killing a baby if I have an abortion?
He also addresses such issues as pain, and possible complications from the surgery, as well as how exactly the abortion is performed. In addition, the booklet discusses various birth control methods.
It's a dangerous time, not only for those who provide abortions but for those who seek them. Some Internet sites have been known to post the photos of women who have sought abortions. And, of course, some sites have posted the names and addresses of abortion providers - some of whom have been killed.
There has also been rumblings from abortion opponents who openly fantasize about abortion providers being charged with murder, should abortion become illegal once again. This would not only apply to those who perform abortions after abortion was declared illegal, but also those who provided them when it was still legal.
He also realizes that Arkansas may well follow the example set by South Dakota. "That certainly may happen. The legislature is as crazy as a loon now."
(If Arkansas denies women the right to an abortion, he predicts that many women will seek the route of self-induced abortions. Harrison says that there have been many more self-induced abortions in recent years than there have been after the 1973 Supreme Court ruling.
Even though vilified, attacked and smeared, William Harrison intends to keep on offering his services to those in need.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, Freedom Run. and Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.
Little Rock Free Press - 2005