Jan. 11, 2005 — -- The issue of abortion is being debated intensely across the country, even as Judge Samuel Alito is scrutinized by senators on Capitol Hill about Roe vs. Wade and other hot-button issues. In the discreet suburbs of Fayetteville, Ark., we found one man who has campaigned the longest and the loudest for the right to terminate pregnancies.
Dr. William Harrison, now 70 years old, says he has performed at least 10,000 abortions -- and possibly double that amount.
After embarking upon his medical career in the late 1960s, he originally opted to specialize in obstetrics because of the joy he experienced at the birth of his own children. But then came what he calls a career-transforming experience.
"I was assigned a patient who was a middle-aged black woman," he explained. "She was a very sad-looking woman. When I asked what was wrong, she said she had a tumor in her belly. I examined her and quickly determined that it was a far advanced pregnancy."
But when he broke the news to this woman, her reaction was entirely unexpected.
"She looked at me and she began to cry. She said, 'Oh, God doctor, I was hoping that it was cancer.' I didn't tell this story for years and years, because every time I tell it, I cry," he said.
Harrison's eyes filled up even as he recounted the story that proved pivotal in his own career. Her preference for a life-threatening illness over pregnancy prompted him to reflect on whether offering an abortion would have resolved this woman's grief-stricken predicament.
Then came a litany of patients who had undergone horrific, botched procedures. One woman had used such a caustic substance on herself to terminate her pregnancy that when she arrived at Harrison's clinic she had no vagina.
"If you saw the hundreds of patients who have suffered such serious trauma in trying to self-abort, you would soon realize that there has to be a more humane way of dealing with unwanted pregnancies," Harrison said.
The rest, as they say, is his personal history. After Arkansas relaxed the abortion laws in 1969, he offered abortions to anyone who called. The phone has not stopped ringing.
For years, he has been performing three abortions before lunch and three after, four days a week. He is unabashed, some would say shameless, in recommending the procedure. He has argued with everyone who has challenged his position, from local officials to protesters who oppose abortion, some of who firebombed his clinic in 1985.
And he remains entirely unambiguous when it comes to the fundamental issues at stake when considering to terminate a pregnancy.
"I consider the mother's life to be much more important than that little blob of tissue, and that's all it is at that time," he said.
I challenged him on this point, saying that this little blob to which he refers has by 20 days a beating heart and by 40 days a brain that's directing the functions of all the major organs.
The doctor conceded to me that all of that is true -- and that he's comfortable with killing this notion of life.
But elsewhere in our discussion, Harrison also told me he believes the women whose fetuses he aborts are themselves "born again," because young women who thought their lives were ruined by an unwanted pregnancy have regained control of their lives.
"The Abortionist of Arkansas" … and neither the doctor nor his patients are ashamed of that title.