by DEBORAH JONES
May, 1996 (Originally published in Chatelaine Magazine)
On November 8, 1994, B.C. pro – choice activist Joy Thompson walked into her office at the British Columbia Coalition for Abortion Clinics and played her phone messages. One began: “You murderous slut, you killer of unborn innocent children, you bimbo bitch and slag heap.” It ended with a threat on her life.
It was not the first such call Thompson had received, but this time, the threat hit home. Earlier that day, a bullet from an assault rifle had smashed through sliding glass doors into the Kitchen of Dr. Garson Romalis, sliced an artery in his thigh and nearly killed him. Thompson had vented her outrage in the media; the phone message was the result. “Don’t you dare condemn pro – lifers for trying to perform a retroactive abortion on the likes of scum like you and that murderous f—,” said the caller.
The shooting of Garson Romalis changed everything in the war over abortion rights in Canada. As in the United States, where there have been five murders of abortion doctors and clinic staff in the past three years, our war over abortion has rolled inexorably from the courts and legislatures, from rallies and demonstrations, onto a volatile landscape where the stakes are life and death. Almost exactly a year after Romalis was shot, a bullet hit Dr. Hugh Short in the arm as he sat in his den in his Ancaster, Ont., home. Both doctors performed abortions as part of their obstetrical – gynecological practices; police are investigating the possibility of antiabortion motives.
Guns and money define the politics of abortion in the ’90s. The money fight came first and still takes centre stage, with activists and politicians on both sides taking tough stands on public funding of abortions in an era of medicare reform, polarized elections and special – interest politics. But the fury of that debate pales beside the reality of violence. For pro – choicer Joy Thompson, November 8 was when she and her two children began living in fear. The family got a guard dog and moved to an address that’s not listed anywhere; they scan the yard daily for strange packages or people, and never stand near windows.
But the shot also rang out on the other side of the abortion lines. Pro – life activist Wendy Barta heard about the Romalis attack from her husband that same evening. Barta had watched apprehensively as violence over abortion escalated steadily in the United States. “Oh no,” was her sickening thought on November 8, “it’s come home.”
The past 25 years have not exactly spelled progress for the pro – life movement in Canada. The number of officially recorded abortions has risen almost tenfold, from 11,200 in 1970 to 104,400 in 1993 — nearly one abortion for every four newborn Canadians (albeit a drop in the worldwide ocean of 45 million abortions each year). The Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion in 1988; two years later, the Senate defeated legislation aimed at imposing new controls. Today, aside from the sort of professional regulations that govern all medical procedures, no law governs abortion in Canada. Opinion polls suggest that about eight out of 10 Canadians believe abortion is a private issue to be decided by a woman and her doctor.
Given this record — and given that for a pro – lifer, an abortion equals a murdered baby — it should come as no surprise when a fringe few take desperate action. Indeed, some feel divine mandate to act. An underground unsigned manual labeled “The Army of God,” distributed among extreme antiabortionist groups, gives detailed instructions on sabotage of clinics, silencers for guns and an explosive called C4. The five – centimetre – thick booklet, in a melodramatic passage, declares, “Our Most Dread Sovereign Lord God requires that whosoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. Not out of hatred of you, but out of love for the persons you exterminate, we are forced to take aim against you…execution is rarely gentle.”
If the new climate of violence raises the question of how long doctors and clinic workers will be willing to work, the climate of financial restraint raises the question of how long they’ll be able to. In a wave of deficit – busting across Canada, government funding for abortion is under fire as never before. Several provinces resist federal efforts to force provincial medicare plans to pay for abortions in freestanding clinics, despite a string of court decisions across the country in favor of such funding. Meanwhile, Alberta’s Conservative caucus voted last year to de – insure some classes of abortion (although with less immediate effect than pro – lifers had hoped). Determined to keep abortion on the political agenda, the Christian Coalition of British Columbia, a new right – wing lobby group modeled on the U.S. Christian Coalition, is gearing up to publicize the abortion – funding stance of every provincial and national political candidate from now on.
Another swing of the pendulum, as they say. But for the people on both sides, abortion politics ’90s – style means more than a shift of alliances or fortunes. For both Joy Thompson and Wendy Barta, the politics of guns and money have brought fundamental changes in the way they live their lives.
Thompson and Barta both joined the abortion battle in the late 1980s. It was a fraught time. In Ottawa, on January 28, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler’s view that the antiabortion law infringed on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Across the land, Morgentaler led the charge against provincial governments and, in some cases, medical societies, to allow freestanding abortion clinics. In British Columbia, Bill Vander Zalm’s Social Credit government had struck abortions from the list of procedures paid for by the provincial medical plan.
Thompson, a wiry energetic 39 – year – old, had trained as an orthopedic nurse in Britain before emigrating to Canada. A month after the landmark Supreme Court ruling, she was working in a women’s health collective when she answered a distress call from a 17 – year – old from northern B.C. who desperately wanted an abortion. With abortion de – insured, the teen could not afford the ‘Symbol not transcribed’1,100 hospital fee. Thompson directed her to a group of women in the collective who had raised an emergency abortion fund for just such cases, one of whom drove the caller to a clinic in Washington state and back.
That young woman, and the many others who called for help at that time, made a lasting impression on Thompson. She could relate: at 19, she had also been pregnant and single. She chose to have that child, a son, now 19 — and a second son, now 10. She has suffered a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy — and had an abortion (she says her birth control failed and she could not support a third child). “I know what motherhood means,” she says fiercely, “I know one can’t make a decision to be a mother casually. It’s a decision that profoundly, to the core of your existence, changes who you are in the world. That experience should never, ever be imposed upon a woman.”
So, in 1988, Thompson, between parenting and researching and writing books on topics such as miscarriage and infertility, joined other women volunteers to create Every – woman’s Health Centre, a freestanding abortion and contraceptive clinic on Vancouver’s east side. She recalls braving hundreds of demonstrators, media and police to work on the clinic staff as a counselor and spokeswoman. In the years since, she has worked as a health – care consultant opening reproductive – health programs and coordinating the establishment of addiction treatment centres for women. Today, she is the unpaid public spokeswoman for the British Columbia Coalition of Abortion Clinics, which lobbies for prochoice issues in the province. Her commitment is reflected in the still vivid memory of washing the walls of Everywoman’s, day after day, to remove spray – painted messages such as, “Joy Thompson is a whore.”
Wendy Barta’s commitment, to the pro – life cause, is equally intense. The dawn of 1988 found Barta, then 26, with a five – month – old daughter. Raised in a conservative New Brunswick town where the terms “braburner” and “feminist” were synonymous, Barta had discovered feminism in her women’s studies courses as an education major at the University of Winnipeg. She simply accepted the prevailing feminist opinion that choice on abortion was a basic women’s right. As a student living on Corydon Avenue in Winnipeg, near one of Morgentaler’s abortion clinics, she saw “people marching up and down outside the clinic. I felt they were nuts. I did my part in snubbing them.”
That winter, a friend mentioned the Supreme Court ruling, noting that in theory abortion was now legal right up to nine months. Barta didn’t believe it. She phoned the local women’s resource centre, the library, and newspapers, who all confirmed the news. For Barta, this was going too far. Then, she had an epiphany. “In my mind I went back, from nine months, to three months, to the day after conception. It clicked. The person who is there at nine months is there the first day. Whether you take it out early or late doesn’t make any difference.” The logic seemed compelling. Barta felt duped by the feminist orthodoxy — and embarrassed for not having thought it through earlier. “I was upset, angry that I had followed the pro – choice dogma,” says Barta, a teacher – turned – home – maker who now home – schools her daughter, 8, and son,4. “I was very, very angry with myself.”
Almost overnight, Barta turned from a passive pro – choice supporter into a fervent pro – life activist. She had been involved in environmental and antinuclear causes; now, she turned her energies to abortion. But at pro – life meetings and demonstrations on Vancouver Island, Barta found herself rubbing shoulder with people she profoundly disagreed with. A professed feminist, she was at odds with conservative right – wing pro – lifers who opposed equality for women. An agnostic, she took issue with religious fundamentalists who opposed sex education and, in the case of Catholics, contraception. And she disliked pro – lifers praying outside abortion clinics; she felt women would be turned off the pro – life message because of the religious dogma. Most pervasively, Barta felt that almost none of these pro – lifers “addressed the reasons why women have an abortion…the social and economic problems women face.”
Then, a colleague told Barta about Feminists For Life, a pro – life group based in Washington committed to issues such as opposing poverty and violence. She was drawn to the group’s pro – life but socially liberal agenda and, in 1990, helped found Canadian branches in Vancouver and Victoria, which grew to some 500 members across Canada — a small new faction among the ever – shifting communities fighting battles over abortion.
For the next four years, Barta wrote letters, distributed posters and picketed hospitals and clinics, demonstrating against abortion. Her work sometimes took her to the doors of Everywoman’s clinic, where she walked back and forth, back and forth, performing what she calls “sidewalk counseling” — approaching women going into the clinic and trying to dissuade them from having an abortion. Some, she says, walked brusquely by; others paused and accepted her literature, and actually listened. These were most painful, she says, because she felt she connected with them, yet they still entered the clinic doors.
Asked if she was ever successful in persuading someone not to have an abortion, Barta looks out the window for a moment. She shakes her head and says softly, “No.”
Winter 1996: year two of the new post – Romalis era of abortion politics in Canada. It’s unusually cold for Vancouver today, and Joy Thompson and I huddle over an antique wood table in her kitchen. Her teenager rummages through the fridge and her 10 – year – old son scoots out the door, in – line skates in hand. Amid the domesticity of potted plants, a pile of children’s coats and boots at the door, Thompson talks about the price of being a front – line pro – choice activist today.
After Romalis was shot, Thompson, speaking for the B.C. pro – choice community, criticized right – wing groups for inciting violence. The next month, a newspaper reporter warned her that her name was on a telephone message by a right – wing organization linked to skinheads and white – supremacist groups. The recorded message told callers to find Joy Thompson and “have fun, boys and girls.” A few days later, someone broke into her house and stole, among other things, her files and computer records.
On advice from city police and a security company, Thompson and her family moved to a home unlisted even in official records like B.C.’s vehicle registry. (Last year, B.C. pro – life police officer Steve Parker was caught using police computers to trace licence plates parked near a Vancouver abortion clinic.) Thompson never drives the same route twice in a row and, throughout Vancouver, has mapped safe spots like 24 – hour stores where she can run for help. She’s learned to shrug at the invective and threats on the phone line her younger son is forbidden to answer. It’s not an easy life, but she’s not ready to give up. “I’m not the only one going through this,” she insists.
While no one has confessed to either shooting, a handful of activists have issued congratulations. “It was a nice piece of shooting because it sent a warning,” said B.C. antiabortion activist Gordon Watson of the Romalis shooting. Watson is a frequent presence in B.C. courtrooms both as defendant (for assault and other charges relating to his antiabortion activities) and plaintiff (he has sued people involved in providing abortions, including the former provincial minister of health). “That bullet brought the message home to Dr. Romalis,” Watson told CBC – TV’s the fifth estate.
How many have heard the message? Unlike Morgentaler, most physicians now performing abortions try to stay out of the public eye. One seasoned physician, who treated women with botched back – alley abortions when abortions were illegal, spoke on condition of anonymity. “I believe in it,” he said, “and I’m not going to back away. The alternatives are far more serious.” But the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) estimates that of about 200 doctors who once performed abortions in Canada, 10 have quit recently in the face of violence or the fear of it.
The tension is evident when I visit Everywoman’s one bright afternoon. Doctors and nurses perform abortions (2,200 a year) in a state of siege — steel bars, double doors, a security camera and an intercom system. Workers are trained to handle bomb threats. Like Thompson, some have had police risk assessments. Such precautions existed a few years ago, but not the aura of nervousness that prevails today. Leaving the clinic, I notice a utility truck parked outside, motor idling. The three men sitting motionless in the front seat, who seem to be neither working nor on a break, keenly watch me walk down the sidewalk and get into my car. I drive around several blocks before proceeding to Joy Thompson’s, not sure if it’s ridiculous to feel so afraid.
Across the misty Strait of Georgia and on the other side of the abortion war, Wendy Barta is also alarmed by the effect of guns. Curled on a chair in her old wood house, the peaceful tunes of Loreena McKennitt soaring in the background, Barta talks about the irony of preaching pro – life views in this violent age. Barta, who campaigned with people who now espouse violence, felt a paralyzing sense of betrayal when the violence broke out (although she points out, rather ingenuously, there is no evidence that either Canadian shooting was linked to antiabortionists). “There’s no single person to blame,” she says, “so the whole prolife movement is smeared with blood….”
Barta distances herself from what she calls single – issue antiabortionists (including a minority willing to use violence). The pro – life message, she says, is “that all life is precious and must be respected.” Her logic is clear: what’s true for babies is true for doctors. She also argues for social responsibility — everyone has a mandate, for example, to stop parents who abuse their children. “Stopping abortion is no different. But I believe that sitting in front of a clinic door is a reasonable action. I draw the line at a vigilante approach. While I have a right to defend myself or a child, I don’t have a right to initiate violence.”
Barta says she abhors the violence. Yet, a bullet that puts an abortion doctor out of business potentially allows hundreds of babies to live. By contrast, her own soft tactics — counseling, picketing — have not demonstrably prevented a single abortion. Not surprisingly, while Barta continues as Canadian spokeswoman for FFL, she has backed away from front – line campaigning. She has never found it easy to argue for pro – life values, but now, she feels burnt out. Her life is so busy that she’s become more selective, she tells me.
If Barta feels impotent in the face of violence, that’s also true when she is faced by the ballot box. She finds the social policies of the NDP appealing, but not its pro – choice stand. It pains her, she says, to see her tax dollars spent on publicly funded abortions. Yet the conservative parties who want to stanch the flow of abortion money also want to cut social services. The fact is that it’s the conservatives in North American politics who are making headway against abortion — mostly by talking about money. Last year in Alberta, a powerful group called the Committee to End Tax – Funded Abortions pushed the Conservative government of Premier Ralph Klein to de – insure abortion. After a free caucus vote, the government said it would pay only for “medically necessary” abortions. The tactic failed — for now — because the medical association and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta refused the government’s request to redefine “medically necessary.”
A similar committee is now lobbying the Ontario government to restrict abortion funding. In an age when countless health and social services are under the knife, the question will not go away: is abortion an essential service that taxpayers should fund?
A key issue in most provinces is whether or how much medicare should pay for abortions at freestanding clinics or out – of – province hospitals. Clinics lack the de facto quotas and waiting lists at overbooked public hospitals, widely seen as a check on the numbers of abortions. Now, across the country, pro – life groups are taking control of hospital boards in an effort to limit abortion services. Prince Edward Island sets a powerful precedent: no island hospital performs abortions, and medicare reimburses fees for abortions performed in out – of – province hospitals (not clinics) only if a committee finds it “medically necessary.”
The politics of guns and money combined could pose a serious threat to access to abortion, says University of British Columbia law professor Nitya Iyer, who sees abortion as a question of a woman’s control over her own body — and a basic human right. “We can’t provide a service without money,” Iyer says, “and no one will provide the services if they think they’re going to get shot.” To be sure, the service is still being provided — a lot. Even Joy Thompson admits she is disturbed by the numbers of abortions performed in Canada and especially in B.C. — which has the second – highest per capita abortion rate in Canada, after the Yukon. But she insists: “No woman wakes up and thinks, ‘I’ll just go for a coffee and an abortion today.’ I’ve never met a woman who didn’t take the decision after a true search of her own identity, reverentially.” (Prolifers point out that in 1993, 20.6 percent of patients were returning for a second abortion.)
In the short term, the advent of guns may have given a paradoxical new momentum to the pro – choice side. After the Romalis shooting, abortion providers reported an increased show of public support — phone calls, letters, visits. And in B.C. last year, a law was passed setting up so – called “bubble zones” around clinics that prevent violence — but also demonstrations that interfere with a clinic’s operation. The legislation was overturned in its first court case on grounds of freedom of expression, but the government is appealing.
And in the near future, medical developments could make ending a pregnancy easier than ever — and take abortions out of the range of guns. Several potentially safe and effective abortion drugs are being tested, including a combination of misoprostol and methyltrexate, already available in Canada to treat ulcers and cancer respectively. Meanwhile, a nonprofit health organization in New York has taken over the rights to market the European abortion – inducing drug known as RU486. If the drug is approved by U.S. regulators, its entry into Canada may soon follow.
Does the future offer pharmaceutical abortions, prescribed in the privacy of a doctor’s office with only the woman and the doctor ever the wiser? It’s a pro – life nightmare; so far, pro – lifers have used consumer power and political clout to keep abortion drugs out. If that fails, violence could be the next step.
The shooters and bombers are still, thankfully, on the fringes, while the mainstream pro – life movement concentrates on funding issues. And neither the politics of guns nor the politics of money will force people like Joy Thompson to give up. “Women can’t achieve equality,” she says, “unless they can control one of the most basic choices in their lives: whether to be a mother or not.” But Wendy Barta cites the same value — women’s equality — to explain her stand. “Women don’t have the political, social, or economic goodies divvied up to the menfolk,” Barta says. “That’s why we find ourselves turning in desperation to abortion.” Sooner or later, Barta promises, she’ll be back on the front lines.
Copyright Deborah Jones 1996