Longtime Abortion Provider Speaks Out

Clinic Has Been Target Of Protesters Off And On For Almost 30 Years

By D.R. Bartlette

Fayetteville’s Dr. William Harrison has had his share of protesters, threats and vandalism. However Harrison has continued to offer safe medical abortions for almost 30 years. He remembers the days when abortions were illegal and women suffered serious injuries from “back alley” abortions.

Harrison began his medical training in 1964, when abortion was still illegal. He says he saw many girls and women come into the maternity ward of University Hospital in Little Rock where he was training, suffering from the effects of botched “back-alley” abortions: “Raging fevers, extraordinary uterine and pelvic infections, enormous blood loss and a multitude of serious injuries … as a result of illegal and self-induced abortions,” Harrison writes on his Web site.

He says that during his residency, he never personally saw a woman die from an illegal abortion, but he knew of them. “There were significant numbers of poor women who died” from abortion attempts, he says.

From 1970 through the end of his residency in 1972, he performed perhaps 20 to 30 safe, legal abortions a month on girls and women of various ages. He writes, “The contrast between the outcomes for these two sets of women was dramatic, not only for what happened to them immediately — that is, the almost total lack of complications in those undergoing legal abortions and the terrible consequences of some of the illegal abortions that we saw — but also for what happened over the next few years to those who had illegal abortions, as they discovered that they were sterile, or faced total hysterectomy for the effects of injuries suffered during their illegal procedures.”


Dr. William Harrison

In 1979, Harrison founded the Fayetteville Women’s Clinic with a partner, Dr. Clifford Councille. Initially, Harrison and Councille operated FWC as a full service Ob/Gyn practice as well as providing in-clinic elective abortions. Councille left in 1986 to set up a separate practice, and although the sign in front of the clinic reads “Obstetrics & Gynecology,” Harrison hasn’t delivered a baby since 1991. Harrison describes this as a “Sophie’s Choice.” If he were to continue delivering babies, which he loved doing, he would have to abandon the girls and women who were flocking to his office in need of abortion services.

For several years after that, Harrison was one of only two abortion providers in the state — the other one being in Little Rock. He says that some women have driven six hours to come to his clinic.

That has changed somewhat, though; two years ago, Planned Parenthood of Fayetteville began offering medical abortions (such as those using the drug mifepristone, a.k.a. “the abortion pill”). Medical abortions, however, can only be performed up to eight weeks after a woman’s missed period.

Harrison says he treated two rape victims, both 14 years old, in the last month. “If you count statutory rape, we have lots of those. We do 13-, 14-, 15- and 16-year-old (victims of statutory rape).”

He says that although Medicaid is supposed to cover abortions for victims of rape or incest, “Arkansas Medicaid covers nothing.” He attributes this to the influence of fundamentalists in government, such as the former head of the Arkansas Deptartment of Health, Dr. Fay Boozman.

In 1998, prior to being appointed to this position, Boozman (an opthamologist) stated that pregnancies resulting from rape were rare because “their (the victim’s) fear triggered hormonal changes that blocked conception.”

Because Harrison is one of the few abortion providers in the state, he has been the target of protesters off and on for almost 30 years. He says he started getting a few picketers in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

Reagan, who campaigned on a “pro-life” platform, was the first president to address the topic in his 1984 State of the Union speech, a fact that Harrison says may have contributed to the rash of protesters — and violence — directed at his clinic.

“From Jan. 12, 1985, to about July of 1989, I had anywhere from three to four to several hundred (protesters). The biggest was about 500 (people).”

“I had a lot of death threats in the ’80s,” Harrison says, “anywhere from 80 to 100.” He adds that there were only two of these that he took seriously.

His office was firebombed by a 14-year-old boy with a Molotov cocktail in 1985. Luckily, there was only some smoke damage.

“It happened on a Saturday, and we were open on Monday,” he says. Harrison later wrote a fictional book, “There’s a Bomb in Gilead,” based on the incident.

Since then, the number and intensity of the protesters has dropped off dramatically. Now it’s mostly the occasional individual or small group praying silently on the sidewalk in front of his clinic.

“They’re really nice,” Harrison says. “Once in a while, there’s a rowdy group, but (the other protesters) drive them off themselves.”

Harrison said that in the spring and fall, the group40 Days for Life has picketed his clinic, but its Web site doesn’t list Fayetteville as a target city for this fall. “Mostly they’ve abandoned Fayetteville,” Harrison says.

Earlier this year, on June 1, the day after Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider in Wichita, Kan., was murdered while at church, law enforcement officials came to Harrison’s clinic to provide protection, but he told them he didn’t need anything. But after thinking about it, he asked them to come back in the morning when the staff arrived. “They came for a few days and then stopped,” he says.

Harrison says he has no fear; he doesn’t lock his clinic doors or have any other security system in place except for a “panic button” to alert law enforcement — though he says it’s more for the staff than for himself.

“The police in Fayetteville are very good,” he says. “They circle this office on a fairly frequent basis.”

“I’ve got a lot of friends in this town,” Harrison says.


When asked if there is anyone in the pipeline to replace him, the 74-year-old Harrison snaps, “No. I don’t want to retire. I love what I do.”

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