In the Name of Life

Mark Nichols July 24 2000

In the Name of Life

Mark Nichols July 24 2000

In the Name of Life


Stabbing one doctor and threatening another puts abortion on the front burner

Mark Nichols

The first attack was with a high-powered rifle, fired twice through a kitchen window as the victim ate breakfast in November, 1994.

One bullet missed, the other struck Dr.

Garson Romalis in his left thigh, shattering bone and severing an artery. The second attack came last week, this time with a knife thrust into Romaliss back as the obstetriciangynecologist who regularly performs abortions arrived early in the afternoon at Vancouver’s Elizabeth Bagshaw Women’s Clinic.

Once again, Romalis, 63, escaped with his life.

The assailant, described as a white man in his 20s with a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, fled. The next day, Vancouver physician Ellen Wiebe, who is leading Canadian clinical tests of the French-developed abortion drug RU486, received a threatening call on her office voice mail. And as abortion clinics in Vancouver tightened their security, a man telephoned the Vancouver newspaper The Province to claim that an organization called the Baby Liberation Army was responsible for the attack on Romalis, and to warn other abortion providers to “watch their backs.”

With that, the abortion issue—one that & simmered in the background throughout the | recent Canadian Alliance leadership campaign—was firmly on the political front burner. Alliance victor Stockwell Day, a vocal opponent of abortion, condemned the attack on

Romalis (page 16). In fact, the influential anti-abortion organization Campaign Life Coalition offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Romaliss attacker—and challenged pro-choice groups to match the

gesture. “The life of an abortion doctor,” said national president Jim Hughes, “is worth just as much as that of a child in the womb.” In the other camp, some pro-choice spokesmen insisted the wounding, the latest in a decades-long wave of vi-

olence against abortion providers in Canada and the United States, only strengthened the dedication of health-care professionals who offer the procedure. Others warned the bloodshed could persuade doctors to stop performing abortions.

Among those citing the chilling influence was Henry Morgentaler, the pioneering Toronto physician who has established abortion clinics in eight Canadian cities. Some doctors have stopped doing abortions in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, he noted. “For years, we have been living in the shadow of the doctors being killed,” said Morgentaler. “This violence is a sign of frustration, rage and moral bankruptcy in the anti-abortion movement.”

Fearing more attacks, officials strengthened security measures at many of the 30 clinics and hospitals that carry out abortions in every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island. In Washington, the National Abortion Federation, representing abortion providers in the United States and Canada, sent a three-member team to Vancouver to discuss security arrangements at the city’s four abortion clinics. After visiting Romalis in hospital where he was recovering under police guard, NAF’s national director, Vicki Saporta, told Macleans the physician was sitting up in bed and “looking

great.” The assailant’s weapon apparently struck Romalis in the side, Saporta said, just nicking his spleen. “He told us that he was very lucky,” she added.

As they hunted Romalis’s attacker, Vancouver police investigated a possible link to new Canadian trials of the drug mifepristone, also known as RU486, which can induce abortions up to seven weeks after conception. Just a week before the attack on Romalis, Wiebe announced in Vancouver that Health Canada had approved tests of that drug and methotrexate, which can also be used for abortions, on 1,000 women across Canada. Wiebe had already started to administer the drugs to pregnant women by the time she received the threatening call last week. Physicians in Toronto, Quebec City and Sherbrooke, Que., are to start similar comparisons of the effectiveness and safety of the two drugs later this year. The Vancouver incidents were clearly on their minds. At

Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, which is taking part in the trials, spokeswoman Sandra Cruickshanks referred to a “heightened awareness of security.”

Methotrexate and mifepristone have differing functions and histories. Used since the 1950s to treat cancer, arthritis and some other conditions, methotrexate can also halt embryo growth in the first six weeks of pregnancy. Physicians often inject methotrexate to end ectopic pregnancies, a dangerous condition in which the fetus is growing outside the uterus. Doctors have also quiedy used the drug to abort normal pregnancies. Mifepristone, used in Europe since the late 1980s but never approved in North America, triggers abortions by disrupting the implantation of the fetus in the womb. Both have drawn the ire of the anti-abortion movements. “These drugs just provide another way of killing innocent humans,” said Rev. Jim Whalen, national director of Pembroke, Ont.-based Priests for Life, Canada.

Before Romalis’s stabbing, serious incidents of violence had been in decline at North American abortion clinics. Since 1977, the NAF has counted seven murders, 16 attempted murders and 40 bombings associated with clinics. But last year, it recorded no attempted killings and just nine

serious incidents, down from 26 in 1998—the year a rifleman fatally wounded Dr. Barnett Siepian in Buffalo, N.Y. That killing capped a series of shootings, all on or near Nov. 11—Canada’s Remembrance Day—that began with Romalis in 1994 and included physicians in Winnipeg and Hamilton. Police are looking for a former Vermont resident, James Kopp, in connection with Slepian’s death. Kopp is also a suspect in the shooting of the three Canadian doctors.

Law-enforcement officials doubted that the latest violence and threats were connected with the earlier shootings. “At this point, we don’t see a link,” said Const. Bob Johnson, a spokesman in Winnipeg for the Canadian police task force investigating violence against abortion doctors. That, he added, in no way meant that abortion clinics should relax their security precautions. “This kind of thing,” said Johnson of the attack on Romalis, “is not going to go away.” EH