NL 2010/9

William Harrison’s “Ride on This Tiger” Has Come to an End.
The outspoken abortionist from Arkansas has died at the age of 75


William Floyd Nathaniel Harrison regarded the religious fanatics demonstrating in front of his clinic in Fayetteville, Arkansas (pop. 60,000), as excellent free advertising, as they showed women who needed it where to go, meaning they did not have to search desperately in vain.


This American gynaecologist was an unconventional and colourful champion of women’s right to abortion. He said about his mission: “I have dared to ride the tiger. This tiger is ignorance, intolerance and hatred incarnated in some of the anti-abortion Religious Right which now almost totally controls the Republican Party and the political right wing in this country. And I have chosen to ride this tiger unquietly, raking its sides with verbal spurs, swinging my hat and whooping like a cowboy for the past 15 years.“


Originally, he decided to study medicine as a way to impress the girl he later married, and the births of his own children awakened his interest in the field of gynaecology. Harrison started performing abortions in 1974, one year after they were legalised. At that time his main specialisation was delivering babies. Later, in 1984, he was the only doctor in the area who performed the procedure: his older colleagues had retired, and the younger ones were intimidated by demonstrations and death threats. After about 6000 deliveries he performed abortions exclusively, and over 30 years they totalled approximately 20,000, as he was the only doctor in the region to go to. For this reason his Fayetteville Women’s Clinic, particularly during the 1980s, was a frequent target of firebombings, picketers, blockades and vandalism. Receiving death threats became daily routine.


He was moved to choose this line of work by the experiences of his patients, many of whom had terrible experiences with illegal abortionists or scarred themselves for life during desperate attempts to perform the procedure. One woman used such caustic chemicals when performing an abortion on herself that, by the time she reached Harrison’s clinic, her vagina was gone.


Another, upon hearing that she was pregnant once again, broke out in tears, saying about her swollen belly, “I was hoping it was cancer.”


Harrison never hid, instead expressing his views openly, writing articles and giving interviews. In answer to the accusation that he was a murderer, he retorted that while life was destroyed, the abortions he performed involved embryos that were far removed from human beings with brains. Helping women, many of whom were disadvantaged, presented a stronger moral case for him. By sacrificing the foetus, he helped his patients be reborn in a sense, and young women in particular, whose lives would have been ruined by an unwanted pregnancy, regained their self-determination as a result.


In May 2010 Harrison was diagnosed with leukaemia, and in July he decided to close his clinic. On 24 September he died at the age of 75.


Museum for Contraception and Abortion (MUVS), Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1150 Vienna, open Wednesday to Sunday, 2 to 6 p.m., and at