CRIME

Fire in the night

A firebomb adds heat to the abortion debate

PAUL KAIHLA June 1 1992
CRIME

Fire in the night

A firebomb adds heat to the abortion debate

PAUL KAIHLA June 1 1992

Fire in the night

CRIME

A firebomb adds heat to the abortion debate

The $50,000 surveillance system, installed after previous attacks on the building, caught the perpetrators in the act. Video cameras trained on the backyard of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinic, which sits on a busy street in downtown Toronto, recorded the shadowy figures approaching the three-storey Victorian house in the middle of the night: a heavyset man with a cap pulled down over his face and an assistant carried two fivegallon gasoline cans to a basement stairwell from a back alley. The man poured the liquid under a door. As the gasoline spread across the basement floor inside, it began to evaporate.

Highly explosive vapors seeped up from the basement, filling the clinic and turning the entire semidetached structure into a bomb ready to go off.

Outside, the cameras then recorded the man returning to a ground-level back door, where he drilled a hole and ignited the volatile mix, possibly using the wick and gunpowder from a Roman candle firework later found on the scene. The force of the blast at 3:23 a.m. on May 18 was awesome. Heard half a mile away, it blew bricks and windows out from three sides of the building—and established a new threshold of violence in Canada’s caustic abortion debate.

While arson and bombing attacks against abortion clinics in the United States are frequent occurrences, it was the first instance in Canada of such serious sabotage. The eruption and resulting fire gutted Morgentaler’s clinic, valued at about $500,000. Combatants on both sides of the abortion debate quickly assigned blame. Morgentaler and his followers charged that the bombing was a byproduct of inflammatory tactics used by anti-abortion campaigners. “They cannot act by democratic means so they resort to criminal acts,” said Morgentaler. Leaders of anti-abortion groups denied responsibility and denounced the use of violence against Morgentaler. Some abortion opponents suggested that the arsonist may have been the angry father of an aborted fetus. “If I invade your house, drag your child out, shoot him in the head and tear him to pieces, you’d want to kill me,” declared Richard Hudon, founder of the Ottawa-based Pro-Life Action League. “That’s exactly what

Henry Morgentaler and the abortionists are doing to children in the womb.”

While some Morgentaler supporters speculated that the bomber might have been part of an extremist anti-abortion group in the United States, American investigators said that there was no evidence of any cross-border links. They also noted that of the 42 people convicted of attacks on abortion clinics in that country

since 1982, only a handful were active in antiabortion groups. According to Jack Killorin, a Washington-based special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the culprits were mostly people suffering from mental illness, publicity-seekers or burglars. “Many of them tend to be loners who are seeking a way to commit what they perceive as a heroic act on a high-visibility issue,” Killorin

told Maclean’s. “They’re suffering from delusions and need some sense of achievement.” Certainly, the Morgentaler blast was the work of an amateur. An arson expert familiar with the investigation said that a professional bomber would have placed himself at a safe distance from the blast by using a remote detonating device, which can be made with easily obtainable radio equipment. “He had to be out of his mind igniting the thing like that,” said the expert. “There could have been enough vapors outside to blow him sky-high.” While the bombers apparently escaped the direct impact of the devastation, neighbors Cindy Karam, 25, and James Rogers, 48, did not. They own the semidetached unit on the other side of the eight-inch dividing wall from Morgentaler’s clinic. Minutes after they watched a late movie on the fateful night, the explosion rocked their third-floor bedroom with such force that it splintered the six-inchthick hardwood posts on their queen-size bed.

The terrified couple grabbed some clothes and scrambled over toppled furniture, rubble and shards of glass in bare feet to the dark street below, where dangling electrical lines sizzled with flames. Declared Karam: “We’re lucky to be alive.”

At the end of last week, Karam salvaged belongings amid the putrid smell of smoke hanging heavily in her home, which suffered $100,000 worth of damage. For the past eight years, she and Rogers have endured the strife of living next door to the controversial clinic— vandalism and two earlier arson attempts, as well as five years of daily, noisy protests outside their living-room window by anti-abortion activists. “I feel sorry for Morgentaler,” said Karam, “but I hope he doesn’t come back.” For his part, the 69-yearold doctor had not yet decided whether to rebuild his clinic on the same location. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz,. Morgentaler spent the week treating scheduled patients at one of the city’s three other provincially funded abortion clinics. In a gesture of support, Ontario’s New Democrat government, a strong advocate of abortion rights, pledged $420,000 to increase both security at those facilities and assist clinic staff and patients in dealing with harassment. The outpouring of sympathy for Morgentaler and his colleagues from such quarters may not have been an outcome that the videotaped saboteurs had intended.

PAUL KAIHLA