DR. HENRY MORGENTALER PUTS HIMSELF AT THE CENTRE OF A FIGHT OVER ABORTION RIGHTS
Just the weekend before, as guest of honor at a Planned Parenthood Federation of America dinner in San Diego, Dr. Henry Morgentaler vowed that when he returned home to Canada, he would challenge Nova Scotia’s law banning abortions outside hospitals. The abortion rights crusader kept his promise: five nights later, on Oct. 26, he stunned an assembly of media representatives and plainclothes police gathered in the Halifax Sheraton Hotel,telling them that, hours before, he had performed seven abortions in his clinic in the city’s north end. According to Morgentaler, the patients came from all over Atlantic Canada and included a young Nova Scotia rape victim and a woman who had no money to pay his $250 fee (which he waived) after spending $481 on her airfare from Newfoundland. That, he added, was a clear indication that the region is in dire need of expanded abortion facilities. Said a defiant Morgentaler of his patients: “They came in pregnant. They did not want to be pregnant. At the end of the procedure, they were not pregnant.” Morgentaler’s disclosures and a declaration that he would perform more abortions in weeks to come signalled a fresh round in his 20-year battle to make abortion easily accessible to Canadian women from coast to coast. But for people opposed to abortion and the Conservative Nova Scotia government of Premier John Buchanan, which has been adamantly opposed to the establishment of freestanding clinics, it was clearly a call to arms. Within minutes, Halifax police served Morgentaler with a sum-
mons for his admitted breach of the province’s three-month-old Medical Services Act. The 66-year-old doctor was scheduled to appear in a Halifax court this week to answer a summaryconviction charge that carries a minimum fine of $10,000. Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups marched on Halifax police headquarters demanding that police close the clinic. Said Ann Marie Tomlins, executive director of an antiabortion umbrella group called Council For Life Nova Scotia: “We mean business. This is murder.”
In addition, spokesmen for Nova Scotia’s attorney general’s department said last Friday that the department will likely seek an injunction to close Morgentaler’s clinic. Said Peter Spurway, executive assistant to Attorney General Thomas Mclnnis: “We think we have a
pretty good chance of getting it.” But Morgentaler made it clear that he looks forward to challenges from all quarters. Declared the doctor: “I invite the government to prosecute me under their present legislation in order to get a speedy court decision.” And, issuing an appeal for public support for his clinic, he served notice that he wants a test in court of what he termed “an immoral and cruel law— one of the most flawed pieces of legislation I have ever seen.”
In fact, the Medical Services Act prohibits a variety of medical procedures other than abortion, including liposuction and intrusive diagnostic techniques, from being performed outside hospitals. But Nova Scotia officials have made no secret of the fact that the main intent of the legislation was to keep Morgentaler from opening his Halifax clinic. The Canadian Abortion Rights Axtion League (CARAL) quickly launched a court challenge to that law, arguing that it was unconstitutional. But on Oct. 17, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court dismissed the suit on the grounds that CARAL was not directly affected by the legislation.
CARAL is now appealing that ruling. And, in the meantime,
Morgentaler says that the law contravenes Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and flies in the face of the 1988 Supreme Court decision that declared Canada’s previous restrictive abortion law unconstitutional because it contravened the rights of women. Meanwhile, he said that he plans to return to Halifax at least one day a week to perform up to 15 abortions on each visit to his clinic, a modest, red-shingle McCully Street building that has been equipped and staffed with abortion counsellors since May.
Activists who support abortion as an option in the Atlantic provinces were quick to applaud Morgentaler’s actions. In Newfoundland, abortions are performed by only one doctor one day a week at St. John’s General Hospital. In New Brunswick, an abortion is available only with the consent of two doctors—and then only if the procedure is required for medical reasons. And in Prince Edward Island, no legal abortions have been performed since 1982. “I have firsthand knowledge of many women who go to Montreal at great cost,” said Noreen Golfman, a Memorial University English professor who is an officer of the Newfoundland chapter of CARAL. “They’ll go to Siberia if they have to. Women will be relieved that it’s closer.”
But in Nova Scotia, the government will likely argue in court that the province has a more liberal abortion policy than its Atlantic
neighbors—and that Halifax is a poor choice for a freestanding clinic. Last year, doctors performed more than 1,500 abortions at 12 hospitals in the province—85 per cent of them carried out at Halifax’s Victoria General Hospital. Said Mayor Ron Wallace: “I don’t understand why Dr. Morgentaler would select Halifax.”
Some experts predict that the legal battle could take as long as three years. And the prospect of regular skirmishes at the clinic in a residential area—already the site of almostdaily protests by people opposed to abortions—has clearly worried the residents of tiny McCully Street. “I think there are going to be a lot of smashed windows and tom-up lawns if it all gets out of hand,” said 74-year-old Lu Watt, owner of a house near the clinic. “And I think
it’s going to.” Added John Berrigan, owner of two properties on the other side of the clinic: “It is going to ruin the street and it’s unfair to my tenants. This could cause a war.”
Last week, there were indications that the fight could soon extend to Ottawa. After months of consideration, the federal cabinet was likely to give final approval to new abortion legislation and table it in the House of Commons soon. That legislation, which is expected to allow abortion in the early stages of pregnancy while restricting it in the later stages, is unlikely to appeal to those who say that abortion should be totally unrestricted. And by allowing early-stage abortions, the legislation is also certain to anger those against abortions—and once again inflame the debate that has already scarred the country.
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