Until July 29, Fernandina Beach appeared to be the picture‑perfect American small town. Then Dr. John Britton was gunned down and abortion protesters cheered at his funeral. RUSS RYMER reports from the broken heart of the country
Dr. John Bayard Britton photographed in November 1993 at the Pensacola Ladies Center
In her 1954 novel, Peyton Place, Grace Metalious described the torment of a small‑town doctor, Matthew Swain, who is asked to perform an illegal abortion for a teenage girl. Dr. Swain is an iconoclast, to the irritation of his colleagues, and plainspoken enough to draw the disapproval of all those solid Peyton Place citizens who prefer their physicians antiseptic in personality as well as in person. But he is also deeply conservative, with an implacable conscience and a hatred for bartered principle, especially regarding his profession, in which, he states, "rules are rules."
So when Selena Cross‑the sixteen‑year‑old stepdaughter of villainous Lucas Cross‑comes to him in trouble, his answer could have been scripted by Operation Rescue: No abortion. It's against the law. There are alternatives. "Selena, tell me who this man is," he said, "and I will see that he is held responsible."
She does, and a lifetime of certainty crumbles for Dr. Swain. " 'It's my father,' said Selena Cross…'My stepfather,' she said…She fell forward onto the doctor's hardwood floor and beat her fists against it. 'It's Lucas,' she screamed. 'It's Lucas. It's Lucas.'"
Confronted with Selena's dilemma, its complicated freight of horror and hope, Dr. Swain makes a decision he will never entirely reconcile. "You've lost, Matthew Swain .... You've lost," an inner voice tells him. "You are setting out deliberately this night to inflict death, rather than to protect life as you are sworn to do."
And he answers himself, "I am protecting life, this life, the one already being lived by Selena Cross." In the course of an ensuing hour, Selena sheds the encumbrance of a repugnant fate, her fetus loses its chance at life, and her physician loses his innocence forever.
Peyton Place, of course, is all about innocence. It is set amid the vaunted simplicities of an American small town. That mythic place, the midwestern or New England village of picket fences and shaded porches and rough but reliable virtues, is a powerful American symbol, erected so squarely on the intersection of sentimentality and patriotism as to be the ancestral home and inevitable destination of every debate about declining values or rising crime or sex education or health care. Or, for that matter, abortion. Its underside, the labyrinth beneath the lawn, has been explored by Thornton Wilder and David Lynch and other artists in colors more subtle than those used by Grace Metalious, but never to such popular effect. There is probably no city in America whose own residents have not referred to it, when tragedy and scandal surface through the pieties of civic respectability, as "just like a Peyton Place."
For those of us who live in the small town of Fernandina Beach, Florida, that's not something we can say with any degree of irony. It's an article of adamant local recollection that Grace Metalious lived here, and though she had the good manners to situate her novel in the Connecticut River Valley, we persist in imagining our town in the book. Fernandina is a prototypical American small town, 40 blocks of kempt Victorian homes, a tree‑lined main street of ice cream parlors and restaurants and banks and bookstores. The sidewalks downtown are brick, and the boxes in the post office are cast in yellow brass. It's a conservative town in a fundamentalist corner of the South, and a cat's cradle strung over the steeples of downtown churches, the masts of the shrimping boats at the docks, the flagpole in front of the post office, and the weather vane on the clock tower of the redbrick county courthouse would seem to be enveloping enough to enshroud us all in safety.
So we were stunned one day in July to learn, over lunch and coffee and in sidewalk conversation, that one of our neighbors, Dr. John Bayard Britton, had been gunned down by a religious assassin, Paul Hill, in Pensacola, a city on the other side of the state, where Britton had gone, as he went every week, to perform abortions at a women's clinic. It's doubtful if Grace Metalious ever met Dr. Britton, but if she had, she would have found him an excellent template for Dr. Swain. He was iconoclastic and plainspoken, a man who believed that rules are rules but whose rules were not everybody's. He thought that people deserved health care without regard to pocketbook, and he was notorious for forgetting to bill. He seemed in all things informal and old‑fashioned. His office on Fourteenth Street was so old‑fashioned that some feared it predated antisepsis, but fortunately, he was also old‑fashioned enough to make house calls, even if the house was the Dayspring Village home an hour away at the far end of the county, where the patients were schizophrenics whom other doctors would not treat.
Because of such things, and because he brought so many of Fernandina's children into the world, Dr. Britton is a fixture of local hearsay. Hearsay of the time he carried someone's aging mother down the stairs in his arms and drove her to the emergency room in his pickup truck, chatting all the way as if it were all an elaborate excuse for a conversation. Hearsay of the time he was approached to perform an abortion for a teenage girl and sat her down in the living room with her family to talk the whole thing over, before performing what was, in that year, an illegal act of compassion. He spent the night on the couch in his clothes, in case he might be needed. He would aspirate a breast lump for $20. When Mike Douglas cut his finger off, cleanly and entirely off, he wrapped it in a cloth and took it to Dr. Britton's office, where Dr. Britton reattached it, every tendon and tiny nerve, without resorting to an emergency room or an anesthetist or a specialist of any kind. "He told me I would never be able to bend it," Douglas says, holding it up and bending it just fine. For reattaching his finger, Dr. Britton charged him $50.
Just as Dr. Swain's down‑home practice put him at odds with his compatriots, Dr. Britton's enmity for bureaucratic fine points, for specialists and massive layers of tests, did not endear him to the local medical establishment, which lodged several successful complaints of misfeasance against him. Other doctors and hospital personnel defend him and chalk up his troubles to the profession's rejection of nonconformists.
Whichever, his patients loved him. For reasons more communal than personal, Dr. Britton's violent death knocked the wind out of us. Our ministers began sermons on the Sunday after the Friday of his death with variations on the words "This is not the sermon I had prepared for today," and parishioners who did not even know Dr. Britton and who might not even have liked him found themselves sobbing in the back pews. In St. Peter's Parish, Father Gurniak denounced abortion as an evil, then went on to preach from Exodus 22, a passage that gives biblical sanction to the idea that the life of a fetus is to be considered less valuable than that of a woman. Even that seemed beside the point. More to the point was the lay reading from Ephesians: "Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another."
Because neighbors are liable to do that in Fernandina, this is no place to hide from the abortion debate. The letters to the editor of the local News‑Leader sometimes erupt into an argument on the rights of the unborn. Fundamentalists and Libertarians have at each other there, strongly, and sign their names, and the discourse can be more enlightening and civil than anything you're likely to hear on the subject in the national forum. Locally, Dr. Britton was part of that discourse. After checking on the patients at the Dayspring Village, he would sit with its administrator, Douglas Adkins, and talk the abortion issue over. Adkins is opposed to abortion, but what vexed him most about Dr. Britton was the way he messed up the books by neglecting to put in for payment. On the way home, until a few months ago, Dr. Britton would have passed a more intransigent sentiment: an enormous billboard guarding the entrance to the bridge into town, declaring ABORTION KILLS. But even with that, Fernandina is not a battlefield, or wasn't, until the day of Dr. Britton's funeral.
On the morning of that day, I found myself, by chance, sitting with some of Dr. Britton's out‑of‑town relatives in the dining room of the Florida House Inn. They explained to me that the local and state police had met six times with the family to go over security measures. They asked if I thought a protest would really occur. No, I said, and explained that while there was a lot of antiabortion sentiment our county, there was also a reverence for the dignity of a funeral. But that afternoon, across from St. Peter's, the protesters were out. They had parked a van within sight of the church and placed a four‑foot‑tall trophy on top of it with a billboard reading MARKSMANSHIP TROPHY FOR GOD'S HERO‑BRO. HILL Surrounding this was a halo of other signs proclaiming FEMI‑NAZIS EVERYWHERE. Several adults and a number of child protesters picketed the church with similar signs, each bearing a female symbol encircling a swastika. The most vocal of them kept a tirade of running vitriol at the assembled, from inches away: We were going to hell, we were killers. "Check out the body," a self‑described Baptist minister yelled at a woman he thought to be a member of Dr. Britton's family, and then, in reference to the fact that Dr. Britton was killed with a shotgun blast to the head: "Look for his face." To a black Fernandina policeman he said, "Protecting these baby killers, nigger?" He carried another trophy, which he said was reserved for the next hero to kill a doctor, and volunteered that that killer might be him. The family was led into the church through the choir loft, escorted by armed policemen. Plainclothes agents mingled with mourners in the pews. Because of threats, the reception afterward had to be cut short and the family led away under police guard. The protesters were from out of the county, and we took some solace in that, but not much. We were left with a vision of the unthinkable: hatred at a funeral, guns in our church aisles.
In Pensacola, across from the Ladies Center, where Dr. Britton worked, is a granite memorial erected by abortion foes and dedicated to "the Holy Innocents." Innocence, of course, is at the heart of our nation's abortion battle. The most shocking innovation of that battle is the transformation of innocence: Once a plea to a criminal charge, it is now a motive for the crime. Paul Hill liked to parade before the clinic with a sign reading, PROTECT INNOCENT CHILDREN, NOT GUILTY DOCTORS. After his capture, he bragged to police, "I know one thing. No innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today."
It is easy to see why some individuals are infatuated with the idea of innocence‑for the battered and failed among us, the prospective life, its potential yet unsullied by compromise or broken by constraint, holds a nostalgic attachment. Life at its beginning may seem like life at its highest, purer and grander than the life already being lived, and more worth saving. But our preoccupation goes beyond the personal and affects more than the disaffected. It pervades our culture: The movie hero of the summer is a simpleton who must rescue his sweetheart from the perils of every new idea to contaminate the American social scene since the invention of rock 'n' roll. It pervades our politics, too, and not only on the right. How else to explain the vogue for victimized virtue, the passion for being aggrieved, except in the formulation of Rose in Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres: "When they suffer, then they're convinced they're innocent again"?
The reasons for this have more to do with the writings of Grace Metalious than the surgeries of John Bayard Britton. The innocence we crave is not the one whose antonym is guilt, but the one whose antonyms are knowledge and sophistication. Cannily, Metalious begins her novel the year World War II began, on the eve of our coming of age as a world power and our embarkation on the path that has brought us, we imagine, to our affliction. With all our transformations since then, with all our remarkable maturation, we are still protesting that path, fearing our future. We would go home, would be again a small town of porches and fences and pure, unsullied potential. We imagine a lost arcadia of fundamental values and yeoman virtues, and fight our way back toward it with every means, violent or sly. But to what effect? In a nation where men are murdered in the name of innocence, can there be any left to defend?
From the porches and over the fences of this small town, we are called unexpectedly to confront do. We sift through what has happened, and the facts that take on meaning are those most basic: John Bayard Britton lived here. We still do. The responsibility in that is more terrible than we can measure. It would be too much to say that we in Fernandina have been robbed of our innocence, but something here was surely damaged in the blast of Paul Hill's gun. People are crying in the sanctuary here. And we, even we, are confused about what that means, whether we weep as neighbors or as citizens, for the friend we've lost or for all that we've become.