Abortionists are apt to be a mite diffident in speaking of their calling—hardly surprising, given the nature of their work and its attendant hazards.  How many abortionists have you encountered socially?  None, I’d wager.  After all, open avowal of their daily labors would hardly invite exchange of further pleasantries.  Picture the scene over the hors d’oeuvres spread at your local Women’s League fundraiser: “Hello, I’m Gladys McNulty.  I’m the nutritionist at Edengrove—you know, the assisted-living facility?”

“Hello.  Pleased to meet you, Gladys.  I’m Ted Fisher.  I do abortions for Planned Parenthood at the clinic down on South Main.”

“Oh, how . . . nice.”

“Gladys, I believe I know Laura, your daughter.  The resemblance is striking.”

“Oh, pardon me, there’s my old friend Maggie Burns.  Haven’t seen that gal in ages!  So good to have chatted with you, Ted!”

Canapés, anyone?  Well, let’s just say that any self-regarding abortionist in America these days isn’t exactly eager for publicity.  Apart from the clinic bombers (God’s own assassins) and the death threats, we might note that there is, more than 30 years after Roe v. Wade, still a stigma attached to the performing of abortions.  Very few aspiring physicians express on their medical-school applications an interest in becoming an abortionist.  Maybe the nomenclature is a problem.  (Gynecological Career Counselor, perhaps?)  Indeed, abortionists are rapidly becoming an endangered species.  Soon, we may have to begin importing them from the People’s Republic of China, whence we get so many other useful things.

In any case, abortionists rarely grant interviews or allow reporters to observe them at work.  That is why Arkansas abortionist William Harrison’s recent appearance on ABC’s Nightline was something of a sensation.  For the 70-year-old Harrison is far from reticent about his long and dedicated career as an exterminator of fetuses.  On the contrary, he is a man with a mission, one who employs a passionate evangelical rhetoric in defense of his beleaguered vocation.  Interviewed by Martin Bashir (infamous for his Living With Michael Jackson exposé) at his clinic in Fayetteville, the silver-haired, avuncular Harrison reveals that he may have aborted as many as 12,000 fetuses since Roe removed the matter from the purview of the states.  (He’s not quite sure of the number, since he hasn’t “counted.”)  With what appears to be complete sincerity, the soft-spoken ob-gyn envisions himself as a sort of angel of mercy, a Florence Nightingale in drag, if you will.  Repeatedly, he speaks of his mostly poor and unwed clients as women who are “born again” as a result of the service that he provides.  When Bashir asks, “How do you reflect on your career?” Harrison responds in the pastoral tone of a man of the cloth:

I’ve had one of the most emotionally satisfying careers that I can imagine anyone having.  I can’t tell you how satisfying it is, when two weeks after a young woman has come in distraught and thinking that her life is ruined, and she comes back two weeks after the abortion and she is a new woman.  She’s been given her life back.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in November 2005, Harrison speaks even more revealingly of how he first realized that a pregnant woman might, in effect, be held hostage by the life in her womb.  The year was 1967, and he was still a medical student.  He recalls how he informed a poor woman with a “distended belly” that she was pregnant.  Expecting a pleased response, Harrison was stunned when she lamented, “Oh, God, doctor.  I was hoping it was cancer.”  This seems to have been the defining moment in the good doctor’s ministry.  Never again would he assume that pregnancy always comes as a blessing.  Nor does he appear to have looked back in doubt, though it must be noted that, although he continued for a number of years to divide his time between delivering babies and aborting them, he gave up the former practice in 1991.  Is it possible that he had begun to feel troubled by the apparent contradiction in his dual practice?  When he speaks of the nature of the life that must be sacrificed so that his patients may be “born again,” Harrison is not altogether consistent.  In speaking with Bashir, he claims that he considers the life of the mother far more important that the “little blob of tissue” that she carries within her, which is not a “person” but only a “potential person.”  He claims that the fetus is “not a baby to me until the mother tells me it’s a baby.”  Does that mean, then, that it is the mother herself who confers the gift of personhood?  Yet Harrison refuses to abort during the third trimester, calling such a practice “infanticide” because, at that point in the pregnancy, the fetus can survive outside the womb and may feel some pain.  But if the “little blob of tissue” becomes an infant (presumably a “person”) after six months of pregnancy, then apparently it is no longer the mother who confers this elusive status.  Fortunately for his peace of mind, Harrison is untroubled by this muddle.  All moral contradictions are dissolved by a soothing ointment of compassion.  In the Times profile, he says that “We try to make sure that [the mother] doesn’t ever feel guilty for what she feels she has to do.”

Thus when Harrison’s expectant mothers of potential persons arrive at his Fayetteville clinic for their initial consultation, they find that the doctor’s thoughtful nurse has posted some reassuring statistics on the exam-room mirror: “One of every four pregnant women in the U.S. chooses abortion,” they learn, and “A third of all women in this country will have at least one abortion by the time they’re thirty-five.”  According to the Times, the nurse asks, “You think there’s room in hell for all those women?”  Clearly, Harrison and his nurse understand the fears of their Arkansas flock.  One 17-year-old mother seems quite confident that the fetus she’s carrying (at five weeks) is not really a baby, “not until it’s developed.”  But perhaps she is not quite so confident as she pretends, so the nurse assures her, “It’s completely formed [at] about nine weeks.  Yours is more like a chicken yolk.”

When Harrison’s expectant mothers return to the clinic and are strapped in for “delivery,” they find themselves surrounded by “paintings of butterflies and flowers” and lulled by the mellifluous harmonies of “an easy-listening station on the radio.”  Before the procedure commences, they are sedated intravenously with Versed, a drug that will erase any memory “of what happens during the 20 minutes [they are] in the operating room.”  Harrison and his nurse work with brisk efficiency, but not without concern for their often young and apprehensive charges.  They are led toward the moment of rebirth with a steady patter of paternal concern: “How’re you doing up there?” the doctor asks, and, receiving the expected affirmative, he replies, “Good girl.”  He is always careful to alert them when the moment of truth arrives: “You’re going to hear a sucking sound,” he intones.  When the “born again” experience is completed, one of Harrison’s young flock weeps tears of gratitude: “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be,” she says.  “I thought it was going to be horrible.” How comforting it must be to know that the sucking sound she heard was little more than a bothersome bit of breakfast food being vacuumed out of her belly.

So what does an abortionist do after an exhausting day at the clinic?  Some, no doubt, play the links in air-conditioned golf carts like other physicians.  Some—the workaholics—may spend their leisure time pouring over trade journals, wondering whether they can afford the latest ASCO SU-505 Electric-Manual Suction Unit (polycarbonate jar optional; foot pedal included).  William Harrison, though, is not your average abortionist.  It seems that he has literary ambitions.  I discovered this quite by chance when running an Amazon.com search using Harrison’s name.  Not only has this extraordinary abortionist written a novel (about which more below), but he is also an avid amateur reviewer of books for Amazon.  What is most interesting about this for present purposes is that Harrison reveals as much about himself in these reviews as he does about the books he chooses to review, although those choices are themselves revealing.  What emerges amid a litter of solecisms and misspellings is a portrait of a liberal rationalist whose liberation from hardscrabble Arkansas Methodism began during childhood and whose lifelong struggle against “fundamentalists” of every conceivable stripe has assumed veritably Manichaean dimensions.

In a review of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harrison claims to be proud of his roots in rural Arkansas, where he first picked cotton (during the Depression era) at the age of four, though he is quick to point out that his people were not “poor white trash” but the “gentle poor.”  At the age of 12, his “childish faith in the Christian tradition” was “squashed” when, precociously, he read the “Good Book” twice over from cover to cover.  Looking back on the event, he notes that the “Catholic church has always wisely banned the reading of the Bible for its own parishoners [sic]” since a “perusale [sic] of the entire text will pretty much wipe out the idea of a supreme being that is omnipresent, omniscient and [sic] omnipotent, and even more incredible, composed of three literally unbelievable [sic] beings.”  Harrison lauds Harris for writing a book “that should destroy completely for any rational person that reads it, the rediculous [sic] and unprovable ideas that are behind all the worlds [sic] religeons [sic] and their ‘holy books.’”  After some fulminating about the looming threat of a fundamentalist takeover of America under the auspices of the Bush administration, Harrison prophesies a “religeous [sic] war with Islam in the next few years.”  Now this prediction of a religious war with Islam is, you will agree, pretty darned insightful, especially since it was penned in 2004.  But Harrison doesn’t see any hope of avoiding such a disaster short of “some miraculous outbreak of reason,” in which, of course, he places no faith, because he is a rationalist.  Indeed, in a review of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Vol. IX: The Age of Voltaire, Harrison expresses his almost giddy admiration for Durant, that purveyor of Enlightenment platitudes sans pareil.  He discovered Durant’s Story of Civilization series in the 1980’s and declares that reading it was “the greatest intellectual experience of my lifetime.”  One is reminded here, perhaps, of Coleridge’s discovery of Immanuel Kant, or of Kierkegaard’s first fateful reading of Hamlet.

By now, you may have guessed that Harrison’s political convictions are not conservative, nor even Republican.  Back in 1972, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress on a Democratic ticket and, shortly thereafter, made the acquaintance of the two people who remain his political idols down to the present: Bill and Hillary Clinton.  In a review of Bill Clinton’s My Life, Harrison is proud to inform his Amazon readers that he has known the Clintons “personally since they moved to Fayetteville to teach at the University of Arkansas Law School in the early 70s.”  Curiously, he notes that he “met Hillary first as her physician and she soon introduced me to her boyfriend, Bill.”  Now, since Hillary did not bear a child until 1980, we may be excused a certain prurient interest in precisely what capacity Harrison served as her physician.  But he (perhaps coyly) doesn’t tell all.  Instead, we learn that he became an active campaigner for Bill Clinton and was honored, along with his wife,

to be among the few extremely close friends, family members and invited guests at Bill and Hillary’s small wedding, although we neither one [sic] realized at the time what an honor they had bestowed upon us.

You will note that in writing this review Harrison has remembered to turn on his spell checker, but his prose remains a bit ambiguous.  Were he and his wife among the “close friends,” or simply mingling with the “invited guests”?  Did he introduce himself to the Rodham clan as her personal physician?

Such intriguing questions aside, we note that Harrison reviews the garrulous 1,000-page My Life as if it were divinely inspired.  His gushing admiration for the Clintons would be almost touching if it were not so maudlin:

I am proud . . . to have had an opportunity to read this book, which outlines and showcases some of the most extraordinary persons and events in U.S. history.  You go, Bill and Hillary.  You both have given already an almost unsurpassed contribution to our nation’s history, which will judge you with a much more reasoned and rational mind than the idiots who have hated you, seemingly for no more reason [sic] Christ was hated—you aspired to, and tried to, make our world a better place.

Regarding Clinton’s extra-political career as a serial philanderer, Harrison admits that Bill was only human and did at times, especially in the early years, have some trouble “keeping his sword in his pants.”  But most of the rumors and allegations, he says, are unfounded swill propagated by the enemies of truth (and they are legion).  Why is the rational doctor so sure of this?  In a review of David Maraniss’s First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton, he explains: “I have yet to take a medical history from any woman who ever admitted that Bill Clinton ever made an inappropriate move on her.”

While it would be pleasant to dwell at greater length on Harrison’s book reviews (in which, for instance, we find Al Franken likened unto his “spiritual father, Will Rogers” and Richard North Patterson to Dostoyevsky), I have promised to say something about this literary abortionist’s own book, a novel.  Published in 1999 by M & M Press in Fayetteville (primarily a rather obscure publisher of legal tomes), Harrison’s There Is a Bomb in Gilead is, as one might expect, a pro-abortion fairy tale.  Gilead is the name of the Southern town where one amiable Dr. Hobson runs an abortion ministry besieged by crazed and sinister fundamentalists bent on shutting his benevolent operation down.  Since Harrison’s own clinic in Fayetteville was similarly besieged (by his own account) back in the 1980’s, we would not be wrong, perhaps, in assuming that this novel serves a certain flatteringly autobiographical purpose even as it depicts our dauntless ob-gyn’s fundamentalist tormentors as self-tormented onanists and, of course, racist bigots.  Nor will we be terribly shocked to learn that the heroine in the novel is a teenaged girl who has been twice raped by her father before being impregnated by a married employer, and who now seeks deliverance from her predicament at Hobson’s willing hands.  Does Hobson have a choice?  No, he has a calling, but powers and principalities are arrayed against him.  Will goodness and compassion prevail?  Well, William Harrison will be happy to send you a copy of the book so that you can find out for yourself.  It’s available for $9.95 plus tax from Fayetteville Women’s Clinic, 1011 N. College, Fayetteville, AR 72701.  Know that, in purchasing a copy, you will be contributing to Dr. Harrison’s retirement fund, helping to ensure that his declining years will be replete with serene afternoons of literary endeavor and nights of untroubled slumber.  But then again, perhaps he may toss and turn a bit over the memory of the woman who, according to the L.A. Times, returned to his clinic nine times—the young woman who, like one of those backsliding believers for whom the original experience didn’t quite stick, was born again . . . and again.