Riding a Tiger
A speech by Dr. William Harrison to the Medical Students for Choice about being an abortion provider and challenging anti abortion forces at every turn.
A Letter to Medical Students for Choice,
I write this now because I grow older and recently have been granted a glimpse of my mortality. Like you, I don't know when or where I will die, but I suspect that I run a little greater risk of meeting a violent death than most Americans, for 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. Does riding this tiger in this way rather than silently going about my business - and avoiding at least as much as I can attracting its attention - mean that I love my family less than those Pro-Choice physicians, especially Ob/Gyns, who silence the voices of their consciences and creep away from the controversy for fear of social, economic or personal consequences if they do what they know to be right?
Though many might disagree, I don't think so. I believe that after loving and supporting the mother of his children, that the greatest gift a father can give his family, or a brother might give his siblings and their children, or a child his parents, a citizen his country, or we frail human beings the world, is to act rightly and openly to do justice as we are given to know what is right and just.
The greater the cost and risk of doing this, the greater is the necessity one should so do. In our democracy, when those who know that they should advocate, advance and act on a particularly humane and rational public policy, such as Roe v. Wade, remain silent and still from fear of shrill and hate-filled voices, from fear of the very real slings and arrows, bullets and bombs of some whom they might offend - giving way to those who would dictate bad public policy based on narrow sectarian beliefs or fraudulent propaganda with no regard for the terrible consequences which face millions of people every year - then our free society threatens to degenerate into a totalitarian theocracy or a dictatorship. And dignity and freedom will be inexorably crushed.
When we dedicate our lives to worthy causes, causes greater than our own petty dreams and fears, we play the same role as have those who have gone before us and pledged or given their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in the quest for freedom and dignity. Most who advance the cause of human dignity and freedom are not called to give their all in the noise and strife of the battlefield or at the scene of some great disaster.
But all of us are auditioned and everyone of us constantly tested in other theatres in this human drama, in arenas which mandate a different kind of courage. Most of these roles don't require the sudden adrenalin-propelled acts of nearly superhuman bravery displayed in war and disasters, but call for a more mundane day-in, day-out effort to stand up to our own fear and to unrelenting public criticism, sometimes to threats of violence, often with little or no obvious support. (Though, sooner or later, support will come if one is right.)
Quite by chance, I found my place in the age-old conflict between reason and unreason, freedom and bondage, dignity and indignity - between good and evil, if you will - while practicing my specialty, Ob/Gyn, and providing safe, affordable abortion as just one aspect of my professional duties. I hope that each of you and your medical school classmates may find in your lives a part so fit, a cause so worthy.
William F. Harrison M.D.
Jan 22, 2000