By Anne H. Oman
Reporter At Large
October 25, 2021
Now that abortion is once again front and center – in the Supreme Court, and in the Florida legislature –and passions on both sides of this thorny issue are rising, it seems a good time to retell the story of a Fernandina physician who was felled by those same passions some 27 years ago.
Early on the morning of July 29, 1994 a Fernandina Beach family practice doctor named John Bayard Britton flew to Pensacola. He was met at the airport by retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James H. Barrett, a volunteer bodyguard who was to escort him to the Pensacola Ladies’ Center, an abortion clinic. Both men wore bullet-proof vests. Dr. Britton’s was homemade, and he carried .357 Magnum. But as Col. Barrett’s pickup truck pulled up at the clinic shortly before 7:30 AM, anti-abortion activist and one-time minister for two conservative Presbyterian sects, Paul Hill aimed his shotgun at the men’s heads, killing them both and wounding Col. Barrett’s wife, a nurse, who was in the back seat. (The shooter later explained that he had aimed for the head because he suspected the victims were wearing protective vests.)
Apprehended about 500 feet from the clinic, an unrepentant Mr. Hill told arresting officers: “I know one thing, no innocent babies will be killed in that clinic today.” Later, he invoked the golden rule to justify his actions: “The Christian principle is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If an abortionist is about to violently take an innocent person’s life, you are entirely morally justified in trying to prevent him from taking that life.”
The mainstream pro-life community quickly distanced itself from that sentiment. “The pro-life movement has no room for violence or vigilantism,” said the Rev. Pat Mahoney, of the anti-abortion Operation Rescue.
So, who was John Bayard Britton and why was he at this clinic clear across the state from his home base?
Born in Boston in 1925, John Bayard Britton graduated from the University of Virginia and its medical school. After service in the U.S. Army in Korea and a stint teaching at the Medical College of Georgia, he settled in Fernandina Beach and opened an office on North 14th Street across from the old Humphreys Memorial Hospital, where he delivered babies and performed surgeries. One native-born Fernandinan remembers going to this office for camp physicals and treatments for poison ivy. Said another life-long resident: “If you needed stitches, he was the one to go to — a great reputation for scar-less.”
“He was our family doctor for a bunch of years,” said another life-long resident. “We’d go to him if we had a cold, anything. We were in the commercial fishing business, and if any of our employees got sick, we’d send him to Dr. Britton.”
Dr. Britton – “Bayard” to friends – and his wife, Faith Murray Britton, an accomplished artist who had studied at the esteemed Black Mountain College with Josef Albers and others, built a house in the woods along Egan’s Creek off Citrona Drive, and hosted frequent parties.
“The house always seemed sort of unfinished, but it was a good group of people.” recalls one attendee. “Faith, who had studied ballet, sometimes danced. This was in the sixties, when we first came down here.”
Another long-time resident tells of an evening spent around a table telling ghost stories.
“All of a sudden, the table started rising,” she said. “And of course, it was Bayard…. Let me tell you a story about how wonderful he was. I had a dog that I loved – a mutt. He used to run in the woods, and one day, a hunter shot him. I didn’t have a vet, so I called Bayard. He met me outside the hospital and rolled the dog up in a big sheet and took him inside and removed the bullet.”
But John Bayard Britton – giver of parties, teller of ghost tales and savior of pets– was never fully accepted by the local medical establishment.
“He was a character, not a saint,” said one local physician. “He drove around in an old pickup truck.”
“John sort of marched to a different drummer,” said another physician, now retired. “He was brilliant, but just bizarre.”
But eccentricity may not have been the whole story.
According to the Associated Press, Dr. Britton had twice been placed on probation by the state medical board – in 1966 for an alleged affair with his receptionist, a former patient, and in 1982, for overprescribing opioids to a drug abuser.
Dr. Britton disputed the opioid charges but “on the advice of an expensive lawyer” accepted two years of probation, according to a profile entitled “The Abortionist,” published by GQ magazine in February, 1994.
He also lost staff privilege at Humphreys Memorial Hospital for reasons that could not be determined.
“I don’t know why – I didn’t go to board meetings,” said a retired nurse who had worked with Dr. Britton at Humphreys. for seven years, “probably longer.”“He was odd, but he did his job,” she told the Observer.
“Like in the ER, when we were finished suturing, he’d take the sutures off the tray and wrap them up. I didn’t question him – we were going to throw them away anyway. I was the head nurse on the floor, and I thought he did everything proper. When I made rounds with him, the patients seemed to like him – he answered all their questions. As far as I’m concerned, he was a good doctor.”
But patients drifted away.
“I stopped going to him, but I still liked him as a friend,” said one former patient.
The resultant loss of income, coupled with a bad investment, put him in a financial bind. So in 1993, after the murder of abortion provider David Gunn outside a Pensacola clinic, Dr. Britton began flying to Pensacola every Friday to perform abortions at the Pensacola Ladies’ Center. On Saturdays, he went to the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Tallahassee for the same purpose. He viewed abortion as a last resort, and sometimes told women to think more about the decision to have one and come back the next week if they hadn’t changed their minds. But he believed the decision was the woman’s, and called anti-abortion protesters “fanatics.”
“I made a living doing abortions,” Dr. Britton explained in the interview with GQ. “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.”
Dr. Britton’s funeral, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Atlantic Avenue, drew both mourners and hecklers.
“I remember going around into the church and being shocked at the demonstration going on against a murdered man,” one life-long St. Peters member told the Observer.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, about 200 mourners crowded the church while two dozen policemen kept the protesters at bay outside. Family members wore yellow ribbons and were escorted by armed police, as was Vanita McKinney, Dr. Britton’s live-in companion for ten years. (His wife, Faith, died in 1983.) As the congregation inside the historic old church sang “Amazing Grace,” and a former patient eulogized Dr. Britton as “a perfectly lovely man and a wonderful doctor,” the protesters screamed “Mass murderer” and “Baby Killer.” Some hoisted placards condemning “Fem-Nazis,” and one man carried a giant marksmanship trophy for the shooter.
Dr. Britton was buried next to his wife, Faith, in her family’s small cemetery on Edisto Island off the coast of South Carolina. The small, flat gravestone reads: “Let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.” 1 John 3:18.
Paul Jennings Hill was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, and sentenced to death. On September 3, 2003, some sixty anti-abortion protesters gathered outside the state penitentiary at Starke, holding a prayer vigil and carrying signs calling Gov. Jeb Bush a “baby killer’s helper”. At 6 pm, despite a letter to Governor Bush from Dr. Britton’s step-daughter, Catherine Britton Fairbanks, asking that the sentence be commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and to “please stop the killing,” the prisoner was executed by lethal injection. His last words: “The last words I want to say, if you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected.”
But the final word on the issue that led to the deaths of both Dr. Britton and Mr. Hill has yet to be written. On November 1, the U.S. Supreme Court will discuss a Texas law that prohibits abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, often as early as six weeks into pregnancy. On December 1, the Court will consider a Mississippi statute designed to reverse the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade. And, come January, the Republican-dominated Florida legislature will take up “The Florida Heartbeat Act,” HB 167, introduced by Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-Deltona).
Like the Texas law, the Florida legislation would allow members of the public to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion. Unlike the Texas law, the Florida bill, as currently drafted, allows exceptions in the case of rape, incest, domestic violence, human trafficking, or when denial of the procedure would “create a serious risk of substantial and irreversible bodily function.”