Dr. Harrison has been an abortion provider in Arkansas for several decades.


by William F. Harrison, MD


As a physician who openly provides abortion for my patients, I have dealt with and closely observed militant religious fundamentalists of the Christian variety since 1983. During that time, my office was firebombed by a 14-year-old boy whose actions were instigated by fundamentalist propaganda that he was exposed to in his church. It has been invaded, blockaded and vandalized literally scores of times. Between 1985 and 1989 I received so many death threats that I lost count. At least two of these I and law enforcement authorities took very seriously. Since 1978 there have been hundreds of instances of violence against doctors’ offices, physicians, clinic personnel and Planned Parenthood facilities here in the United States. Several of my colleagues have been shot, stabbed and injured by religious fundamentalist terrorists’ bombs and there has been millions of dollars in property damage caused by terrorist bombs and arson. If there is any group in the United States which has had more experience with religious terrorism than the two thousand or so physicians who provide almost all this nation’s abortions - other than possibly the American Jewish community and civil rights workers targeted by the ostensibly Christian Ku Klux Klan in the fifties and sixties - I don’t know who they might be. Certainly there is no one in the Bush administration who has been as closely focused on this problem in the last 20 years.

Militant religious fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or of some splinter sect origin, presents the greatest threat to peace and security in the world today. Fundamentalists seem to share certain widely recognized characteristics and attitudes. They are certain that they, and only they, possess "The Truth." They all cite an external source for that "Truth": religious dogma, the Bible or similar sacred texts, or a charismatic leader. They adhere to a good vs. evil belief system, all black or all white with no shades of gray – an "us versus them" mindset. All share in the ideal of a "traditional family" with the husband at the head of the household maintaining absolute dominance over his wife, or wives, and their offspring. Fundamentalists usually express a justification for violence to oppose what they perceive as evil or to support what they "know" to be the good and true. They reject efforts to accommodate to inevitable social change and moral ambiguity. Most are rabidly anti-communist, anti-abortion and homophobic, although "secular humanism" is rapidly replacing communism in their unholy trinity.

Most are anti-intellectual, anti-science, prejudiced against minorities and even their co-religionists of slightly differing cant. (Fundamentalist Baptists know Catholics are going to hell and fundamentalist Catholics are certain that Protestants are. Both seem more than a little glad of it.) They are authoritarian, self-righteous, and zealously oppose any critical or analytical thinking which might alter their attitudes since reasonable doubt and a healthy skepticism are among their greatest sins. A visceral intolerance of female sexuality and an insistence on the subservient role for women are almost universal articles of faith among fundamentalists. Most view pregnancy as a blessing for the good wife or as God’s punishment of female licentiousness for those girls and women who don’t view a particular pregnancy as a benediction. Rigid heterosexuality and a double standard for male heterosexual conduct are seen as the only valid norms.

But it is only when religious fundamentalism is wedded to a militant and tyrannical agenda used by a ruthlessly ambitious political figure or party that it becomes truly dangerous to dissenting individuals and to the society within which it might flourish. At the present time, most of the world’s religious fundamentalists say they are appalled by and deplore the violence perpetrated by small contingents in every major religion. (Even Buddhism, usually considered the least militant and threatening of all the major religions, has had its crazed violent fundamentalists: the Aum Shinrikyo that carried out sarin gas attacks in the subways of Tokyo.) But the fiery rhetoric of even those who say they deplore the violence, when combined with an ambiguous and covertly or overtly supportive reaction to the violence by government officials and law enforcement personnel, serves only to reinforce the violent behavior of unstable and emotionally immature individuals within the ranks of militant fundamentalism.

This is not an attack on religion. Any religion that can induce an active, selfless, inspirational and redemptive love in an otherwise slothful, self-centered and uncaring humanity is a thing to be encouraged and supported. And their faith does just that for most of the world’s religious people.

But if it is read as a rebuke of militant, exclusivist, hostile and violent or violence promoting religious bigots, of those who have just enough religion to kindle sectarian hatreds, but whose faith is not nearly sufficient to quicken love and respect for others simply because of their humanity, this is exactly how I meant it.

For hundreds of years there has been a struggle between those who promote reason, tolerance, freedom, and the basic human dignity of the individual, and religious fundamentalists who proclaim and follow lives committed to intolerance of the religious beliefs of others and a slavish devotion to a particular religious superstition. Just as advocates of differing economic and political systems vied for control of great blocks of humanity during the 19th and 20th centuries, so, it seems to me, must we – those whose lives are devoted to a search for true cause and effect, to tolerance, freedom and a belief in the dignity and worth of every individual - struggle to overcome the violent and dictatorial devotees of the mindless dogmas of religious fundamentalism and, by education, alter fundamentalists’ unthinking submission to superstition and religious intolerance. Militant fundamentalists too often have demonstrated over hundreds of years a willingness to "kill or convert" those who subscribe to differing belief systems.

I am not at all sure this struggle can be won in my lifetime. I know only that it must be continued.

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