CANADA

Gunning down a doctor

A Vancouver shooting raises the spectre of anti-abortion vigilantism

CHRIS WOOD November 21 1994
CANADA

Gunning down a doctor

A Vancouver shooting raises the spectre of anti-abortion vigilantism

CHRIS WOOD November 21 1994

Gunning down a doctor

A Vancouver shooting raises the spectre of anti-abortion vigilantism

A cold rain drove in grey sheets out of a slate-colored sky. In a house on a leafy Vancouver street, a middle-aged man sat at his kitchen table. His back was turned to the early morning semi-darkness that hovered beyond the glass doors to the patio behind the house. To the shooter, crouched barely 10 metres away and partly hidden by a gap-toothed laneway fence, the effect must have been very much like a store display window—with Dr. Gary Romalis, a 57-year-old obstetrician, sitting innocently in the centre, almost as though set out for the kill. The first high-velocity, 7.62mm rifle bullet hammered into the back of Romalis’s chair, spinning it violently around. As the chair spun, the second bullet smashed into the physician’s left thigh, shattering bone and severing an artery.

Gravely but not mortally wounded, Romalis called out to his wife and daughter, ordering them to remain upstairs. Then, he managed to dial 911 to summon paramedics. It was not as bad as it could have been. But it was bad

enough. He will survive, although he faces months of physical and emotional recovery—and may lose the use of his leg. Police carefully refused to rule out any other possible motives for the Nov. 8 attack, but the most likely explanation was the obvious one: that Romalis was shot for performing abortions at Vancouver Hospital and two abortion clinics. “I can’t think of any other reason anyone would want to do it to him,” said Dr. Kenneth Nickerson, Romalis’s partner for more than 25 years.

If there was an abortion connection in the Vancouver shooting, it is part of a recent pattern in North

America. Just five days before last week’s attack on Romalis, a Florida jury unanimously recommended that Paul Hill, 40, be executed for the shotgun slaying of a 69-year-old obstetrician and his 74-year-old escort outside a Pensacola abortion clinic. It was the second such attack in the Florida town in the past two years: another gunman is serving a fife term for the 1993 slaying of Dr. David Gunn. In Canada, the most dramatic confirmed example of anti-abortion violence occurred in May, 1992, when an early morning bomb tore a crater in the redbrick wall of Dr. Heniy Morgentaler’s downtown Toronto abortion clinic.

Outside the Everywoman’s Health Clinic, where Romalis performed abortions, pro-

testers routinely confront women trying to enter the offices. But since Gunn’s murder, said Joy Thompson, spokesman for the B.C. Coalition of Abortion Clinics, “we have seen a change in behavior in some protesters.” Some, she said, now display “baseball bats and big knives sticking out of their back pockets.” In August, Thompson’s coalition held a news conference to express its growing alarm over the likelihood of violence. What might have been a final warning to Romalis, who had received threats before, came almost exactly 24 hours before the shooting: in two telephone calls to the doc-

tor’s residence, an agitated man demandée to speak to Romalis (who had left for work) and tried to confirm his home address.

Those two calls were among the few clues that investigators were working with last week. The only items of physical evidence that Vancouver police would admit to having were two empty shell casings and 20 unfired cartridges collected from the laneway behind Romalis’s home. Contrary to initial reports, there was no specific evidence that the spent shells had come from an AK-47 assault rifle. According to police, the same ammunition also fits other military weapons as well as some ordinary hunting rifles.

A canvass of the neighborhood, which borders Vancouver’s busy Granville Street commuter corridor, did, however, turn up a gas station attendant who made change for a man at about 7:15 on the morning before the shooting. The man then used the station’s pay phone to make several calls. On the strength of the attendant’s description, police last week said they were seeking a slim, clean-cut white man in his mid-30s for questioning. At the same time, investigators also contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other U.S. police forces for help in exploring possible links between the shooting of Romalis and attacks on American doctors who perform abortions.

If abortion was the issue, the real question preoccupying investigators and observers across the country seemed to be whether Romalis’s assailant was a lone zealot—or a foot soldier in a shadowy conspiracy. Many abortion rights advocates leaned towards the latter view. Maria Corsillo, manager of downtown Toronto’s Scott Clinic, which has been providing abortions since 1986, pointed to a cover story that appeared in The New York

Times Magazine just a week before Romalis’s shooting. In it, Mississippi anti-abortion extremist Roy McMillan was quoted as saying that if he was going to kill an abortion doctor he would do it “clandestinely” and “with a high-powered rifle in his neighborhood.” Corsillo also cited a document issued by an American anti-abortion group called The Army of God, which provides tips on how to sabotage abortion clinics. “These are urban terrorists,” said Corsillo, “and we really have to take them for what they are—a threat to our democratic freedoms.”

Most mainstream opponents of abortion reacted to Romalis’s shooting with a mixture of shock and dismay. Anna Desilets, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Alliance for Life, which represents about 240 pro-life groups across Canada, condemned the violence. ‘We are responsible people who are seeking to educate our fellow Canadians,” she said. We have nothing to gain by an action that could tarnish our reputation and our

public image.” Desilets added that she was upset that “the pro-abortionists and certain elements of the media have tarred the pro-life movement without a scintilla of evidence that [the shooting] is even related to abortion.”

A few vocal activists, however, appeared more than willing to advocate extreme measures against those who perform abortions. “I do condone violence,” asserted Gordon Watson, an outspoken Vancouver anti-abortionist who is appealing a 26-day jail sentence for harassing the Everywoman’s clinic. “The guy kills babies for money. He sows violence, and now violence has visited his own doorstep.” But Watson insisted that he had no involvement in last week’s assault, saying that he was lying in bed when the shots were fired. Police later confirmed that Watson is not a suspect.

Even so, the terrifying early-morning attack on Romalis appeared to raise the level of threat from anti-abortion zealots to an intensity not before seen in Canada. That concern extended among many of those, mostly women, who staff the 17 free-standing abortion clinics that operate in every province except Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan. ‘This is very frightening,” acknowledged Nora Hutchinson, executive director of another clinic in Vancouver where Romalis also practised. “I’ve had police here in my office all day, mainly to ensure our safety.”

Canada’s most prominent abortionist shares those concerns. Henry Morgentaler, who has opened abortion clinics in eight major cities over the past 26 years, said the Romalis shooting has introduced a new and shocking element of danger for physicians like him: “It means that doctors who provide abortion services not only have to be concerned about doing a good job, but also be afraid that their life will be ended by some kind of fanatic who is against women’s rights.”

Even before the Vancouver shooting, abortion clinics were taking security precautions. For example, patients who show up at the new Morgentaler clinic in Toronto are identified through an outdoor security camera. Once they pass through the first steel door, they arrive in a waiting room where they must show identification to a security guard who sits behind bullet-proof glass and who can seal off the clinic area with the touch of a button. Inside the clinic, all the rooms must be accessed with security cards. Morgentaler said that because of the attack on Romalis, such protective measures should be stepped up. Unfortunately, he added, there is no way to guarantee the safety of doctors from those determined to harm them. Vancouver’s Thompson echoed that fear: “We are not convinced that he will be the last.” And indeed, so long as a small faction of the self-described right-to-life movement continues to flirt with violence, that apprehension seems tragically justified.

CHRIS WOOD

ROBIN AJELLO

STEVE BREARTON