Saint and Satan, the doctor who replaced David Gunn lives on the front lines of the war over a woman’s right to her own body
By Torn Junod
The abortionist makes house calls. The abortionist's patient, Mr. Beazley, is dying, and the abortionist has made a habit of visiting his house after work, to steer him to his end. Mr. Beazley is an old man, dying in his bed. He is beyond speech, beyond seeing and hearing. His lips are blue, and his gray tongue hangs out of his mouth. His wife and daughters stroke his arm, his leg. A drip bag, suspended over his bed, feeds him. The abortionist adjusts the rate of the drip. There is nothing else he can do. He cannot save Mr. Beazley. He cannot do anything but deaden his pain and console his family, and for this the Beazleys love him. "Oh, Doc, I can't tell you how much we brag on you," Mrs. Beazley says to him in her weary smoker's voice, and every few minutes a little blonde girl in an orange skirt -Mr. Beazley's granddaughter-hands him, with a curtsy, a fresh drawing of the sun. The abortionist puts the drawings in his pocket and bows. The abortionist has a weakness for children. Some years ago, he delivered babies. The abortionist is a family doctor, and he understands that what he is doing -drawing out Mr. Beazley's death- is simply a gesture for the family's sake: an exercise that enables the Beazleys to believe they have done all they can, and to get a head start on their grief. The abortionist would rather let Mr. Beazley go. He is not, as he says, "sentimental," and he is ready to withhold the medicines that allow Mr. Beazley his scant purchase on existence. As a physician, he has decided that Mr. Beazley is already gone, and it is this-his willingness to make decisions, to answer questions of life and death-that permits Dr. John Bayard Britton to believe that one day, should his enemies come to kill him, he will find the courage to kill them first.
His enemies-they make house calls, too. If you are an abortionist, they find you. They snap your picture, and they tail your car, and they copy the letters and numerals of your license plate, and they find you. Last September, they traveled across the state of Florida-from Pensacola, in the far corner of the Panhandle, to Fernandina Beach, a small town outside of Jacksonville-to find Dr. Britton. They went to his house, while he was not at home, and took a picture of his front door. The house is isolated, at the end of an unpaved road, next to a swamp. The loneliness gave rise to a hope: that a man who lives in such a house-far from help-might be easily frightened. They left a message of Christian forgiveness on his doorstep and then went to his office in Fernandina. The next morning, Dr. Britton's nurse and housemate, Vanita McKinney, opened the door of the office and found a message that caused her to call the police. She had been wondering how long it would take for them to find him, and now she knew.
Dr. Britton has been traveling to Pensacola since the end of March 1993. He has been traveling there to do abortions, because David Gunn, the doctor who had done abortions before him, had been murdered -murdered; martyred; transformed, by the agency of three bullets in his back, from an abortionist into a kind of secular saint. Dr. Britton abstains from sainthood and contemplates martyrdom with great reluctance, and yet now here he is, walking Gunn's path and sharing Gunn's shadows. His enemies found him, and to demonstrate their concern for his soul, they left him an incentive for Christian conversion, a message in the door of his office that asked "WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU HAD FIVE MINUTES LEFT TO LIVE?"
In the airport men’s room, John Bayard Britton dons the accessory that has become standard issue for those who ply his trade.
We like our abortionists pure. We like our abortionists consumed by their cause. If we are among those who oppose what they do, we like them pure in their apostasy; pure in what we imagine to be their greed, their rapacity; pure in their evil. If we are among those who champion them -perhaps not what they do but, rather, their freedom to do it- we like them pure in their devotion to the cause of women; selfless and burnished to high ideological sheen. We like them, in other words, like David Gunn.
You've heard of Dr. Gunn, of course. You've heard of him because he was, in the words of virtually all who knew him, "special." The Christians described him -as they describe Bayard Britton- as a "circuit-riding abortionist," and, in a sense, they were absolutely correct. To provide the option of abortion to the women of southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, Gunn drove, each week, every week, from Montgomery to Mobile to Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach, sleeping in hotels, at his girlfriend's place in Pensacola and sometimes in his car. He was small and tireless, his body flawed, his spirit impeccable. He weighed about 130 pounds and, with one of his legs twisted by polio, he had to walk with a cane. His back ached, and at clinics with two floors, he had trouble climbing the stairs. He insisted on educating the women he treated. In the election year of 1992, he would ask, in his soft voice, if they were registered to vote and the candidate they intended to vote for. If they answered "George Bush," he would interrupt the procedure. "Why should I do this for you," he would say, "if you're going to vote for someone who wants to make it illegal?" On the twentieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, he sang "Happy Birthday" to the Christians outside a clinic and, in a gesture that became his iconographic epitaph, danced to Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." He did not wear a bulletproof vest. He kept a gun in his car but not on his person. He never saw the man who killed him. He never had the opportunity for fear, or repentance, and so he remains, in death, defiant, incorruptible, purified in the crucible of his cause.
John Bayard Britton -who answers to "Bayard" and "J.B." and, most often, "Doc"- is not pure. He is 68 years old, and his aspect can be wolfish. He is tall and gaunt, with the air of a dissipated blue blood. He has stained teeth and a long, bent nose, broken more times than he can remember. His hair is gray and lank, and when he pushes it off his forehead with his fingers, he captures the posture of a rebellious adolescent. His clothes are shabby and his offices, in Jacksonville and Fernandina, are seedy. He likes working on cars and machines, and there is usually a residue of grime under his fingernails. He prefers the company of mechanics, mill hands, plumbers and prisoners to the company of doctors and intellectuals. His politics are often reactionary and intentionally provocative. He has a small, shy smile, and when he talks about public issues, he appears to recover a lost innocence, like a child amused by his own capacity for mischief. There is an NRA sticker on his briefcase, and a .357 magnum in a box on the seat of his truck. Since the murder of David Gunn, he views all the Christian protesters as potential assailants and believes that if they come on his property with the intention of doing him harm, he should have the right to shoot them. At the clinic in Pensacola, the protesters congregate behind a tall wooden fence, and Doc Britton sometimes speaks, with a smile, of taking target practice through the knotholes. He believes, deeply, in the prerogative of capital punishment. If he were God, or king, he says, he would have executed Gunn's murderer two weeks after the arrest. If, by chance, he executed the wrong man, his remorse would have been tempered by the simple fact that we are all frail, we are all sinners, and the accused, in the course of his life, had probably done something worthy of death.
What? You don't like him? He offends you? You don't find his provocations endearing? Well, you're stuck with him. Who else is going to walk where the guns have been drawn? How many other doctors will make themselves targets? David Gunn is gone, departed, like a spirit, like smoke. The others, more and more of them, are reluctant. They don't show up. They quit, they get tired, they grow old. Doc is your new hero. He is old, yes... he is tired, yes... he just doesn't quit. He can't quit. His resistance, his defiance -they are not based in ideology, or cause, but in himself, his character, his troubled and troubling history. He is, if nothing else, a brave and contrary man. All his life, he has gotten into scrapes -with hospitals, with other doctors, with medical boards- until he has become, in some quarters, an outcast who can walk only where no one else will.
"Abortionist": The Christians commandeered the word long ago and employ it, in the words of David Gunn Jr., to "make the doctors seem less than human." Abortion, though, is a uniquely human activity, a measure of our estrangement from nature and our distance from God, and it is his very humanity that forces Doc to stay on the road... to keep riding out, to the west, to Pensacola, where the war over the soul of the fetus and the freedom of women is being fought by men who believe in guns, where Christians scream behind fences and measure the abortionist through the knotholes.
The call comes in the night, to the house Doc shares with Vanita, a dog, several cats and the detritus of his past. Doc built the house himself, years ago, and although he raised five children in it, he never really managed to finish it. It is built on a swamp that was once a clearwater bay. Indians lived by the bay and buried their dead in the ridge next to the house, and it seems appropriate that they bequeathed Doc a yardful of relics. Doc is obsessively frugal-"tight as a drum," Vanita says-and his property has been overtaken by the objects he has been unable to discard: stoves, refrigerators, trailers, boats, bikes, pipes, fans, cinder blocks, tangles of cable, propane tanks, a ship's wheel and nine cannibalized cars and trucks, overgrown with weeds. A neighbor recently accused him of creating a junkyard, and Doc had to tow away six scrapped Volkswagens. In his garage, he has been repairing two large vacuum consoles-the machines that provide the suction for a first-trimester abortion-from the Pensacola clinic. They are clean and cared for; everything else molders and rusts under huge magnolia trees, and the yard's atmosphere of profuse desolation is gothic and surreal.
The call comes at midnight, just as Doc is going to bed. It is Mrs. Beazley, sure that her husband is about to die. "Well, I guess I better come over," Doc says. He kisses Vanita good-night and gets in his truck, with a stethoscope slung over his shoulder and a cowboy kerchief around his neck. His soiled shirt is the color of mustard, and his black belt is cinched so tightly around his thin waist that his pants wrinkle and pleat. On the way to the Beazleys', he almost falls asleep, and, to stay awake, he starts brushing his teeth. It has always been this way. He has never been able to turn away a patient. His daughter Louise remembers people coming to their house at all hours, asking for help. Doc treated them, often in return for nothing more than a five-dollar bill or vegetables from their garden or fish they'd pulled out of the bay. He has always preferred to treat poor people, who tend to be grateful for his services. He describes himself as a "therapeutic nihilist" and has often prescribed, for illnesses he regards as less than serious, "tincture of time." He is suspicious of patients who file claims for workmen's compensation, and once, when he worked at a mill, he told employees that if they were worried about their fingers they should work in an office. He distrusts other doctors. Other doctors, in turn, distrust him.
Innocuous to the point of invisibility among the protesters outside the clinic, Paul Hill is nonetheless the one who frightens the employees of Pensacola's Ladies Center.
Doc has suffered for his unconventional approach to medicine. He has been fired from many jobs. He came to Fernandina in the late Fifties, with his wife, Faith, an artist who painted in gloomy tones of green and blue and was the daughter of one of Fernandina's founding families. He worked at the general hospital as a family practitioner, and from the start he argued with his colleagues, over what he regarded as their penchant for unnecessary tonsillectomies, over emergency-room procedures, over his right to deliver babies and over an abortion he arranged, in the late 1960s, for a woman who threatened to commit suicide if she was forced to take her pregnancy to term. He never did any illegal abortions, he says; no, what he did was set up a little room in the hospital for "pelvic exams," and if a woman came in bleeding, with a nub of fetal tissue showing through her cervix-in the throes of miscarriage, in other words, or of her own botched abortion-he would complete, with a loop of steel, what nature, or the woman, had started.
It is strange, what finally undid him. Doc had always prided himself on his "objectivity" in the face of death, his lack of "sentimentality" in his contemplation of the void. When his father died, though, in the mid-Seventies, he fell into a depression and, in its grip, "probably said some things I shouldn't have said" to his antagonists at the hospital. His antagonists, in response, contended that his depression rendered him unstable -unable to care properly for his patients- and, on April 11, 1978, succeeded in voting him out of the hospital.
They had him now, the doctors he once delighted in calling dishonest, the obstetricians appalled that a family practitioner of his stripe wished to deliver babies. He put his money, what was left of it, into a business that encouraged home births and the use of midwives-but that, too, was doomed, especially after the state medical board charged him, in 1981, with prescribing 1,900 Percodan and Percocet tablets to a drug addict. He disputed the charges, but accepted-"on the advice of an expensive lawyer"-two years of probation, and that, he says, was the end of him: "I was a pariah as far as any salaried job was concerned." After Faith died of cancer in 1983, all that was left were the two offices he kept in Fernandina and Jacksonville with their clientele of poor people and workmen's comp cases -and then, yes, the clinics that would welcome a pariah, so long as he could deliver a safe abortion.
"I made a living doing abortions," Doc says. "I did them because I thought they should have been done; I wouldn't have done them otherwise. But I will say I had no money to feed my family..."
A clinic in Orlando, a clinic in Daytona, a clinic in Melbourne, a clinic in Tallahassee-Doc was on the road now in earnest, on the circuit, in exile. An exile from his home, from his profession and from the great joy in his life-the delivery room and the squeal of newborn children. You see, "he really loves children"-that's what his daughter Louise says. "It's sort of sad, that society has forced him into this. He seems like a sadder person now than when his practice was delivering a lot of babies."
She does not know what keeps her father going, on the road, driving himself beyond the point of exhaustion. Neither does anyone else. Even the Christians look at him and wonder why such an old man doesn't just go home instead of enduring their wrath and daring their judgment. Is it the money? To some degree, yes -several years ago, Doc lost a lot investing in a chain of pet stores. He needs the money. There is something else, though. Long ago, the state medical board charged him "with being unable to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety"; and now, here he is, going where no other physician dares go, risking his life to fulfill the contract between doctor and patient. He is the pariah as hero, the hero as pariah, returned to the halo of principle by the threat of the gun. Women want abortions? Women need abortions? He is a doctor; he will give them their abortions. That is his ideology, just as the house call is his ideology. He will give them their abortions, if it kills him.
Doc makes it to the Beazleys' in the steamy, violet dark. He sits with Mrs. Beazley until three o'clock in the morning, watching her husband breathe. Mr. Beazley does not die. He keeps breathing, long, rattling gasps. Doc does not go home. He walks out to the Beazleys' driveway and sleeps on a pallet in their small trailer. Before sunrise, a nightmare shakes him awake. It's a dream he has had before, a dream in which Vanita's grandson, Michael-a bright, energetic 4-year-old boy whom Doc, with his love of children, with his need for children, has taken as his own-disappears beneath the wheels of a car. Doc lies in the trailer, sweating, unable to catch his breath, as he waits for the dream to change, somehow wills the dream to change, and Michael pops up, miraculously alive, on top of the car, his blond hair aglow.
The following morning, Doc flies to Pensacola.
Three residents of Our Father's House, a home for unwed mothers, which activist John Burt runs like a hoot camp for antiabortion protesters.
When will it happen, if it happens? Will it happen when he steps off the plane at the gate, or when he walks through the soft hush of the terminal? Will it happen when he steps into the bathroom to splash water on his face, or when the car from the clinic comes to pick him up at the curb, or when the car parks at the clinic and Doc has to open the door and walk, for a few seconds, in front of the knotholes?
Doc never sees the man shadowing him. His plane lands in Pensacola at seven o'clock in the morning, when the airport is empty and drained of all sound but the whoosh of air-conditioning. No one meets him at the gate, and he walks through the terminal with a smile on his face, a leather bag hanging off his shoulder. He is wearing a windbreaker, blue pants, brown shoes, maroon socks, a stringy orange tie and a white shirt the shade of a dim lightbulb. He walks leaning slightly forward and, after nodding a familiar hello to an airport guard, heads directly to the men’s room. It's spotless and smells of disinfectant. Doc moves quickly. He takes off his windbreaker, tosses his leather bag on the counter and unzips it. He pulls out a slate-blue polyester vest, V-necked, with six buttons. He raises his arms and jumps into it and then says, with an air of deep satisfaction, "Aah." Doc is proud of his bulletproof vest. Too cheap to buy one, he went through the Dumpster of a manufacturer and collected enough scraps to construct his own. "I tested it in my backyard with my .357, until my neighbor complained," he says. He splashes water on his face and combs back his hair with a wet hand. When he reemerges in the terminal, wearing the vest under his windbreaker, his upper body appears bulky and squared-off. He walks outside, in the billowing sunlight of morning, to look for his ride, which has been arranged by the local chapter of NOW. No one is there. He comes back inside and waits, nervously. He will hear later that a sheriffs deputy, off-duty and out of uniform, followed him through the airport but, somewhat ominously, never showed himself.
After fifteen minutes, a minivan pulls up to the curb, bedecked with a bumper sticker urging "CHOICE." "That's it," Doc says. The van is occupied by June Barrett, a silverhaired woman with a red AIDS ribbon on her T-shirt, and driven by her husband, Jim, a small, ruddy-faced retiree wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap. On the seat between them is a wooden box containing Jim's handgun. June gets into the backseat, and Doc sits in the front, complaining that his vest is too short. "I'd like it longer so they can't get me in the gut," he says. "If they get me in the liver, that's pretty tough to patch. The spleen? The spleen you can take out."
It is a five-minute drive to the Ladies Center, one of the two Pensacola clinics that, until March 10, 1993, employed David Gunn. Gunn did not die at the Ladies Center; he died at the back door of Pensacola Women's Medical Services, and the Ladies Center likes to think that it is the safer of the two. It is a brown two-story wooden building, with a cinder parking lot shaded by oak trees and surrounded by a fence eight feet tall. Jim parks his van right next to the side entrance and says in an official tone "Now Doc, I'll get your bag-when you get out, go right through the door, please." Doc moves slowly, and his ease is disconcerting. Jim looks at Doc for a moment, steps out of the van and says "Get in there now, please." But Doc stands outside the clinic door, blinking, smiling in the morning air, as though listening for the singing of birds. He yawns and stretches and then, whistling "Ode to joy," from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, disappears through the door.
Jim takes out his gun box and places it on the deck outside the clinic's entrance. He looks at the fence, where the Christians usually come. "I like to keep an eye on those peckerheads," he says. "I didn't go to Korea and serve my country for twenty-five years in the service so that these peckerheads can shoot doctors. It won't happen as long as I'm around. I do not miss. These hands are small but I know where to put them. I have survived this long because I shoot first. I was sent home from Korea because I taught that to the 357 men I brought over there. [My superiors] thought my hyperaggressiveness was not in keeping with the military effort. But of the 357 I brought to Korea, 356 came home.
"I have gotten threats. These men have threatened to drive me out of town. They don't like what I do here. I told them to get their friends together and ask themselves: Is their dislike of what I'm doing here worth dying for?"
At 8:30, the first Christian, fat and bearded, sticks his head over the fence, to bellow and holler.
On Fridays-abortion day at the Pensacola Ladies Center-the Christians arrive with the sun, to pray or scream.
Pensacola is low and hot, a modestly sized southern port city with an influx of retirees, a profusion of churches and a stone monument to the Confederate dead in the heart of its downtown. Its economy has been dependent on the military, and an enormous percentage of its population has known the authoritarianism of armed service. It is sandy, scrubby, weedy and piney, and its peculiarly American desolation breeds fundamentalists and terrorists as efficiently as does the desert.
Pensacola has been called "the Selma of the abortion-rights movement" by an activist in the Christian Right, and indeed the city's history has been notable for Christian violence. On June 25, 1984, the Ladies Center was bombed and then, six months later, on Christmas Day, was bombed again-along with the offices of two Pensacola doctors who performed abortions-in an action the bombers described as "a gift to Jesus on his birthday." In 1986, a man named John Burt led his own charge against the Ladies Center, pushing open the side door, slamming the director, Linda Taggart, against a wall and joining three accomplices in the trashing of the clinic. In 1988, John Brockhoeft, who three years earlier had torched a clinic in Columbus, Ohio, parked with Burt in the lot across the street from the Ladies Center and, a few hours later, was apprehended with a trunkful of steel pipes, explosives and detonators. The murder of David Gunn, during a protest that Burt had organized, was the fulfillment of a decade of promises.
The sin of abortion has provided a world of opportunity for Christians such as John Burt, It is Burt, the ex-marine and former Klansman, whose figure looms in every cloud of smoke that has risen from the clinics in Pensacola, whether from bomb or gun; Burt, with his gray beard and black teeth, who came to prominence during the trial of the Christmas bombers, brandishing a pickled fetus he called "Baby Charlie" and giving his blessing to the bombing; Burt who has turned his home for unwed mothers, Our Father's House, into a boot camp for antiabortion protesters on the public dole; Burt who put David Gunn's face on a wanted poster; Burt who prayed with Michael Griffin for the salvation of Gunn's soul three days before Gunn fell dead and Griffin confessed to killing him. And it is Burt, of course, who trespassed on Doc Britton's property, left his message of love at Doc's office and accused him of "crimes against humanity" on a new poster, one that says "UNWANTED: JOHN BAYARD BRITTON."
Would he do it? Would Burt kill a man to save what science regards as a potentiality-a genetic blossom, unfolding-and he regards as a child? Would he countenance the murder of a doctor, of an abortionist, of a "bottom-feeder," of John Bayard Britton? No, he says: "I don't have any problem taking out a clinic as long as nobody's in the clinic. I draw the line at the taking of human life." Oh, he knows why somebody might be moved to kill a doctor, and he sees how tempting an option murder may be, given that we have an ungodly president, that the federal government is moving to limit peaceful protest, that Christians are growing frustrated with the rule of unjust laws. He just doesn't care for that particular form of expression. He knows that he is old-fashioned that way. He knows that "they're out there now," the Christians who will take recourse to the gun, because, well, it just makes sense."Anyone can shoot a doctor." He knows that in the future, when the real work of his movement is being done by those who have decided that the only course of action is to "take out ten or fifteen doctors," people "will look at us the way we look at National Right to Life"-that is, as "wimps." He can even see himself running a kind of Underground Railroad, offering safe haven to those who do the killing. He just doesn't want to become involved in the killing itself. That is the future, and Burt has not claimed it. The future has been claimed by someone else, a man named Paul Hill.
The procedure, performed by Britton as many as thirty-five times in a day, is over in minutes.
The bearded man, preaching the Gospel over the fence until his face turns red and spittle cakes in the corners of his mouth-he has outlived his usefulness. The clinic workers and the NOW escorts sit under the trees and applaud his sermons. Although he is one of Burt's men, they laugh at him and call him "Old Lard-Ass." He is not Paul Hill.
The monk, in his brown robes, carrying a blood-spattered crucifix over his shoulder-he is sort of archaic, too. He comes to the clinic from a monastery in Alabama every Friday -the day the clinic does abortions-and leads a circle of Catholics in the Rosary. The clinic workers call them "our little Catholics." They are gentle; the prayers escape their lips in a soft murmur, and the monk is their leader. He is not Paul Hill, either.
The man who is almost ostentatiously clean-cut, with the straw-blond hair and the orangy tan and the chapped lips; the man who looks like a Peace Corps worker circa 1963, in his shortsleeved sky-blue shirt and blue slacks and aviator-style glasses; the man who is painfully polite and often speaks with a little smile, as the banality of his presentation clashes with the enormity of his message-the clinic workers have no name for him yet. They just say that he is "scary" and that he'd better stay away from them and their children. Some say that should he ever threaten them, they would shoot him -which he must find somehow pleasing, because he is Paul Hill, and Paul Hill believes in the potentialities of murder.
He has come to the Ladies Center today, as he does every Friday, to walk up and down North 9th Avenue and hold up a sign emblazoned with the words "PROTECT INNOCENT CHILDREN NOT GUILTY DOCTORS" or "HOW OLD DOES A CHILD HAVE TO BE BEFORE YOU DEFEND HER WITH FORCE?" Hill has great faith in what he calls "force." That's what he is doing, has been called upon to do-"proclaiming the justice of the use of force." He showed up at the Ladies Center with the timing of a prophet, six weeks before Gunn's murder; no one knew him, no one had heard of him, but two days after Gunn died, Hill called The Phil Donahue Show and told a producer what he had to say. He flew up to New York City, and, sitting on the same stage as Gunn's son, he told the world that the Bible is clear in its justification of deadly forcehell, Hill construes the Golden Rule as a call to arms-and that Gunn deserved to die. Oh, sure, the crowd howled; it hurled its imprecations and insults. But as Hill later told the pastor of his church, he liked it, he felt very much in his element-for this is what he had been chosen to do, to be the "herald" of a new belief.
His church "excommunicated" him. Hill is not without a congregation, though; there are others who believe as he does that Christians have to live above the laws of man, answering only to the laws of God; who believe that the Bible not only allows them but asks them, commands them, to kill in the cause of Christ. There is David Trosch, the Catholic priest in nearby Magnolia Springs, Alabama, who tried to put an advertisement in a Mobile newspaper, calling the killing of abortionists "justifiable homicide." There are the editors of a "rescue" magazine in Oregon, Life Advocate, who publish Hill's writings. There is a convicted clinic-bomber, Michael Bray, in Washington, D.C., with whom Hill trades ideas. There is a movement, by God, and Hill, by virtue of his residence in Pensacola, is at its center. He is in the vanguard of a historical inevitability, yes, and now, with the trial of Michael Griffin about to begin, they will gather together, all the Christians who envision the gun as the tool necessary to reconfigure our society in accordance with God's laws, and they will announce themselves,
"Coming out here in front of the clinic used to be considered outrageous," Hill says as the cars go in and out of the clinic's parking lot. "Now it's old hat. Rescue used to be outrageous. Now it's old. The next thing will be the use of force. Right now it's the focus of a lot of attention, but pretty soon it will be old hat and we'll wonder why we didn't think of it sooner."
He would not kill anyone, he says; that's not his calling. He is simply an advocate, someone who "advocates the advocacy of force." Why wouldn't Hill kill, if he thinks killing is just? "You don't put Robert E. Lee on the front lines," he told his former pastor. Killing doctors, he says, is "an individual thing. If an individual feels called to do something like that, it is entirely up to the individual. We're just saying that force is just. It's up to each individual to make his own contribution."
Doc pushes his hand into a rubber glove. He holds out his thumb, and a nurse squeezes a blob of lubricating jelly on his thumbnail. On an examining table is a woman, young, with frosted-blonde hair, a round Kewpie-doll face and eyelashes like spokes. She is resting under a white flannel sheet that is bedecked with a pastel design; her feet, in white socks, are braced by stirrups.
Doc puts his hand on her belly and says, "It's about as big as a softball, a nice, soft softball." He is smiling, somewhat rakishly; his voice is soft and furred, almost a caricature of an old doctor's voice. With his thumb, he examines the woman's cervix. "Tell me if you feel anything," he says, but she just looks at the nurse with her wide eyes and nods her head, and says not a word. "Well," Doc says, "then tell me if you faint or if you die." Then he gives her a painkiller, "a paracervical block," with a long needle, and she says "I can feel it; I just don't want to look."
"Why-because if you don't look you won't know how dreadful it is?" he asks, and, with the injection completed, he leaves the room.
The patient looks at the nurse. "Are you sure he's...?”
"Well, he's old," the nurse says, "but he knows what he's doing."
In truth, Doc scares them, the young women who come to the Ladies Center. He has been doing abortions for more than twenty years. As soon as the Supreme Court wrote Roe v. Wade into law, he applied some heat to the shaft of a ballpoint pen, fashioned it into a cannula (the stiff tube that's inserted through the cervix during an abortion), attached the cannula to a hose and the hose to a small vacuum and went into business. In the Ladies Center, although the cannula is a long plastic tube, rather than the body of a ballpoint pen, and the vacuum is a large beige box fitted with hoses and gauges, rather than a small gray cylinder, there is still something ramshackle about Doc, something improvisatory and unsettled... and when he returns to the room, he looks at the patient and says "Okay, are you ready? You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
The woman glances at the nurse and rolls her eyes. The nurse shakes her head and then, with Doc sitting on a stool between the stirrups, presses a black switch on the vacuum console. The machine rumbles and shudders, working itself into a pulsing hum, and almost instantly the clear hose that runs from the cannula to the console turns red, so red it is almost purple, the red of raw meat, and there is a sucking sound, the sound of a straw scouring a nearly empty glass. The patient's face instantly turns pale, her eyes shocked wide open. As the hose fills with a splash of purple clots, she throws her arm over her face and turns away in a gesture that parodies the movements of ecstasy. "It'll be over soon," the nurse says. With his head tilted, as though he were straining to hear some sound, and the smile not quite erased from his lips, Doc works the cannula and says, when the patient flinches, "Are you cramping? It's just like menstrual cramps. You've never had menstrual cramps before, have you?"
The nurse holds the patient's hand. The woman mouths the words "It hurts" and breathes in rhythmic, shallow breaths. "Breathe through pursed lips, like that," Doc says. "See-you breathed the pain away. I don't feel anything." The patient keeps breathing, and then, barely ninety seconds from the moment the nurse hit the switch, the cannula is gurgling, there is nothing in the hose, and what was once in the patient's womb is in a glass jar, in shades of pink and red and purple.
The nurse lets go of the patient's hand and, with the vacuum still running, dips the cannula in a bucket of hot water; the hose, instantly, is flushed clean, and the nurse reclaims the patient's hand. Doc is sitting at a countertop, flicking his scribble across a logbook; he stands and says "You did fine," but the patient doesn't hear him, and he leaves the room, whistling Beethoven's Ninth.
The nurse brings the jar to a technician; the technician dumps its contents into what resembles a glass pie plate and, over a sink, combs through it with gloved fingers. The technician describes herself as "a recovering Catholic" and often seems on the verge of tears. "I don't approve, but it doesn't matter if I don't approve," she says. "I'm doing my job. I'm doing what I'm trained to do, and so is Doc-it's better than that back-alley shit! These girls put themselves through hell over this. The punishment is themselves. They don't need people outside to tell them they're going to hell." She runs water and looks at the fetal tissue in the plate. "This one's nine weeks, so it's not that bad. The later ones, though, they're bad-you see little arms and feet... little, but you know what they are, and you know what's really being done."
Outside, on the sidewalk, on the other side of the fence, the Christian protesters have constructed their fantasy of what goes on inside the clinic: a doctor driven by greed; clinic workers and nurses driven by ideology; everyone united in gleeful slaughter. "They won't tell you what goes on in there, what actually happens"-that's what the protesters tell the people walking into the clinic. In truth, the nurses and clinic workers know precisely what is happening and most will tell you that they arrange a costly bargain and that abortion, although the only way to ensure the freedom of women, "is the termination of a kind of life." They go about their work with care, with courage, with determination, and with regret. They do go about it, though, and all day you see glimpses of white socks and stirrups; you see Doc walk through the door and close it behind him; you hear the murmur of the vacuum and feel its pulse; you hear the sucking and gurgling of the straw emptying its glass. Doc works all day; he does thirty-two abortions, for which he earns $50 apiece; and at six o'clock, at the close of business, you see him, gray with exhaustion, slumped against a wall, with his hair askew and a tune still on his lips.
Doc lost one once. A young woman, college aged. On the poster John Burt made of him, advertising his sins, there is this information: "Britton is directly responsible for the death of at least one woman. [The woman] died... from complications stemming from a SAFE, LEGAL ABORTION performed by Britton . Does Doc remember? Sure he does. How can he forget? "She was sort of a runaway type, living in a crash pad .... She had a double uterus, so there were complications .... I couldn't stop the procedure; I had already broken the barrier, and it was improper to quit .... She started vomiting a day after. She went to the emergency room -maybe she had haphazard treatment, maybe she stayed at home too long-but she did get admitted. She was in shock. She was sick. I tried to get through to the doctors, to tell them what I knew, but they wouldn't talk to me. They treated me like a criminal! Like talking to me would taint them! They ended up operating on her and she died after surgery. But why operate? They did it to prove I did something wrong! They took out her uterus, but they didn't treat the girl. If they had treated her shock, she'd still be alive.
He had to defend himself and was absolved, after an investigation, of all wrongdoing. He has always had to defend himself: Since embarking on the practice of medicine, he has been called before his peers, before hospital boards, before judges and juries in malpractice suits, and he has survived them, endured them, though not without a taint.
If he were to be called before a different kind of tribunal, though-a man with a gun, a man who had heard the call of Paul Hill's gospel and decided to "make his own contribution"-how would he defend himself then? What could John Bayard Britton say if he had five minutes left to live? That he is not a criminal? That he still makes house calls? That he loved his wife and still talks about her? That he remembers the time when her womb was filled with their first child as the most wonderful time of his life? That he is disappointed that his children haven't given him a brood of grandkids? That he would consider it a "disgrace," a "nightmare," if he found out that one of his daughters went for an abortion-"for convenience"-without consulting him? That he doesn't particularly like abortion and sometimes tries to persuade his patients-if he thinks "the baby has any chance at genetic qualities"-to take the pregnancy to term and put the child up for adoption?
What else could Doc say to the Christian who would hold him in judgment? That his own ethics are not Christian but medical and he should be free to follow them? That he grew up on a farm and learned early on to do the unpleasant-to dispatch dogs, cats and barnyard animals without sentiment-because such things "had to be done"? That he feels, when he is doing an abortion, the same way he felt when he had to "sacrifice" laboratory animals for research-"I'm not taking that life out of anger or cruelty; I'm taking that life for a purpose. I feel like the American Indian did-I'm saying a prayer to that animal: Give me your life so that I can accomplish this purpose, 'speed thy spirit on to other places' so that the life that is lost will one day be replaced."
Could the man with the gun ever understand such a prayer? Could he ever understand that, in Doc's eyes, there are things worse than death; that abortion is bad but an unwanted child, left to the harsh mercy of this world, is worse; that by allowing a profusion of the unwanted, we are breeding criminals who will devour this country; that we are, in fact, breeding ourselves to destruction, to a reckoning, to "Armageddon"? Yes, Armageddon: Doc is an atheist, but he believes that with each new generation America lurches to its final fissure, its final collapse. He is not alone, of course; in America, in 1994, we are united by our belief in the apocalypse; we are separated only by the apocalypse we choose, and by how far we are willing to go to implement our vision.
Doc leaves the clinic in his vest, although the sunlight has begun seeping from the air and the Christians are gone from the fences and the sidewalks and linger only in threat. He gets a ride to the airport and drinks a scotch in the lounge. He flies home to Jacksonville, and when he gets in his truck in the airport parking lot, he says, "Do you think old Mr. Beazley is still alive?" It is almost eleven o'clock, one of those nights when the sky is alive with light, as though from a distant fire. Doc has been awake since four in the morning, and yet as he comes to the Beazleys' exit, he pulls abruptly off the highway and speeds to their driveway. The little house is blazing with lights; there is a gale of children in the front yard, running and scrambling, and, in the middle of them, there is Mr. Beazley's daughter, She sees Doc and rests her head on his shoulder: "Oh, Dr. Britton," she says with a sad smile, "you're too late. My daddy ain't here no more." •