William F. Harrison

Photo of William  F.  Harrison
Dr. William F. Harrison, the founder and primary physician of the Fayetteville Women's Clinic and one of the few remaining physicians in the region willing to perform legal abortions, died Friday Sept. 24, 2010, at his home in Fayetteville . He was 75 years old. Dr. Harrison's office was a target of protest demonstrations for years. He never shrank from what he regarded as a battle over principle. He was forthright in his belief that a woman's body was her own, and he carried his message from coast to coast in lectures, articles, and interviews in the national media. His opponents were numerous, vociferous, and angry. His life was threatened often. There was at least one serious attempt to burn his clinic. He obtained a restraining order to keep protesters from harassing his patients, and thereafter they moved their weekly demonstrations to a vacant lot across College Avenue . A local Catholic priest led one last protest demonstration, billed as a "mass for the unborn", after it became known that Dr. Harrison was dying of leukemia. For most of his career in Fayetteville , which began in 1972, he had a normal practice in obstetrics and gynecology. He delivered thousands of babies and cared for large numbers of other women patients. He finally stopped delivering babies in 1991 to run for Congress. He mourned that part of his practice for the rest of his career. The Supreme Court legalized abortions in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. After that, most of the 20,000 obstetricians and gynecologists in the United States chose to avoid the adverse publicity that went with performing them. Stand-alone clinics were established to fill the void. Those clinics quickly became vulnerable to the attacks of the so-called pro-life movement. By the year 2000, according to a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, only about 2,000 clinics remained and most were run by older physicians like Dr. Harrison. Since his illness forced him to close his clinic several weeks ago, only one that specializes in surgical abortions remains in Arkansas, in Little Rock. Planned Parenthood provides medical abortions, using an abortion pill, in two locations in Arkansas and Oklahoma . For years, Dr. Harrison's patients drove from all over the region, some of them hundreds of miles. William Floyd Harrison was born Sept. 8, 1935, at his grandfather's home in the farming community of Vilonia, in Faulkner County , Arkansas . He was the son of Mattie Evelyn Powell and Benjamin G. Harrison, both educators. In first grade, he was chosen King of Carnival at Halloween and Santa Claus in the 1941 Christmas pageant at Mt. Vernon Public School. There were suspicions that his father's being the school superintendent and the principal had a bearing on his selection. Dr. Harrison denied that and pointed out that he was chosen "most likely to succeed" when he began the eighth grade at Forrest City, where his father was not employed. He also acknowledged that he was never again chosen for that honor. He often joked about his checkered academic career. He graduated from Forrest City High School , attended Arkansas State Teacher's College, and graduated from the University of Arkansas . His college career was interrupted by four years in the Navy in the late 1950s, which took him to several parts of the world. He graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in 1968. He completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University Hospital in Little Rock in 1972. It was there that he first encountered numerous patients ranging in age from teenagers to mothers in their 40's who had been seriously injured, sometimes fatally, by bungled illegal abortions. He recalled being told by one older woman who was already the mother of a large number of children that she had hoped the swelling in her abdomen was cancer and not another baby. He joined Dr. Jim Mashburn in private practice in Fayetteville in 1972. He established the Fayetteville Women's Clinic in 1979. During the ensuing years, he became a teacher and mentor to large numbers of medical students and residents from across the United States and Canada . Several traveled to Fayetteville to work under his tutelage and returned to their homes with a new appreciation of the rewards and difficulties of a career as a pro-choice physician. He was a faculty speaker at four annual national meetings of Medical Students for Choice beginning in 2000. He was keynote speaker at the group's meeting in 2006 in Baltimore . The National Organization for Women once named him its Man of the Year in appreciation of his work for women's rights. He lectured widely on medical ethics and abortion, mainly at institutions of higher learning across the country. He wrote numerous articles on that subject for publications as varied as professional journals and Vogue magazine. He was the subject of articles in the Los Angeles Times and Reader's Digest. He was interviewed on the ABC television show "Nightline." He was associated with the Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville , the Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, City Hospital in Fayetteville , and the Willow Creek Women's Hospital in Johnson. At Washington Regional, he served four terms as chairman of the Obstetrics and Gynecology section and one term as chairman of the Department of Surgery. He was the Center's chief of medical staff one year and served on the Board of Directors that year. He was a clinical instructor in the Department of Family Practice at the University of Arkansas AHEC-NW in Fayetteville . Dr. Harrison was an avid reader with a taste for writings in literature, politics and religion. That taste was considered by some of his literary friends to be rare in a physician. He himself liked to write and spent many hours at it during late hours when his insomnia kept him awake. He wrote a novel, "There Is A Bomb In Gilead," a fictionalized account of the challenges facing a physician who performed abortions. He carried his interest in politics to the practical level in 1992. He ran for the Democratic nomination for Congress and received 15 percent of the vote. He said that considering his reputation as an "abortionist" and the low esteem in which that occupation was held by many in the electorate, that was "not so shabby." He was a member of the Arkansas and Washington County medical societies, the National Abortion Federation, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In 1960 he married Betty Waggoner of Texas City , Texas , whom he described as "stunningly beautiful, kind, gentle, intelligent and exceedingly brave." She survives him along with their three children, Amanda Robinson and her husband Daniel; Benjamin F. Harrison III and his wife Carrie, and Rebecca Harrison and Justin Bondi. He was a loving father who adored his family. The weekly trips to the farmers market and Sunday dinners surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren were his most cherished rituals. He is also survived by a brother, Ben Harrison, and two sisters, Mary Harrell and Martha Harrison, all of Fayetteville, and six grandchildren, Isabelle, Lillian, Benjamin, Justin, Amber, Jessie, and Whitney, and an enormous supply of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews. A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at St. Paul 's Episcopal Church. In lieu of flowers memorial gifts may be sent to: Medical Students for Choice, PO Box 40188 , Philadelphia, Pa. 19106, and the Dr. William F Harrison Reproductive Services Center, Planned Parenthood, 125 East Township St., Fayetteville , 72703. Arrangements are under the direction of Nelson-Berna Funeral Home and Crematory of Fayetteville.

Published September 26, 2010

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