R.I.P. Bill Harrison: A Physician Legendary for Compassionate Care

Carole Joffe

For the women of Arkansas, the death from leukemia of Dr. William Harrison means they have lost a compassionate physician, legendary for his kindness.

For the women of Arkansas, the death from leukemia of Dr. William Harrison of Fayetteville, several days ago means that they have lost a compassionate physician, legendary for his kindness to his patients. His death also means that the number of abortion providers in the state has now been reduced to one facility in Little Rock. For the abortion providing community in the United States, Harrison’s death means the loss of one of this group’s most prolific and forceful spokepersons. 

While many abortion providers, quite understandably, prefer to maintain a low key presence, and ignore the taunts of their opponents, Bill Harrison reveled in give and take with anti-abortionists. In spite of the fact that in the 1980s, his clinic was firebombed and he received death threats, he not only continued to provide abortions, he continued over the years to correspond with various of the individuals who were protesting him.  As he often said to them, their presence outside his clinic was great advertising, bringing him patients who may not have known he provided abortions.

Dr. Harrison, who died at the age of 75, did not start his career intending to provide abortions.  But as with so many physicians who came of age before Roe v. Wade, he saw first hand the misery caused by unwanted pregnancies. In a story he often told, as a third year medical student he encountered an impoverished African American woman, the mother of several children, with a swollen abdominal mass. When told that she was pregnant, the woman cried softly and said, “Oh, God, I was hoping it was cancer.”  As Harrison later wrote,  “That mother’s anguished whisper eventually became a shriek of despair and hopelessness that has reverberated in my heart and mind and soul for over thirty years. Before that moment, forever seared like a brand on my memory, I would have described myself as “Pro-Life” had I then known this political term.”

Beyond caring for his patients, one of Bill Harrison’s greatest sources of professional gratification was working with young medical students.  Up to the time of his illness, he often traveled to speak at national and regional meetings of Medical Students for Choice.  He welcomed members of this organization to spend time with him in his clinic in Fayetteville where he would mentor them in abortion care.

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Dr. Harrison was an energetic writer as well as speaker. He proudly identified as a progressive, and posted frequently on websites such as Daily Kos,  as well as listservs within the abortion providing world.  He even wrote a novel, There is a Bomb in Gilead, a compelling portrait of the psychological damage that religious fundamentalism inflicted on its youthful adherents.

Deeply shaken by the assassination of his friend George Tiller, he nonetheless insisted that it was all the more important for providers to speak out publicly about their work.   As he put it in an e-mail,   “the story has to be about the girls and women we see, not our fears for our own lives.  If everyone repeatedly told the stories of the women and girls we see and their struggles and sorrows, this crap would have been over years ago.”   

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