(CUP)Victoria physician Mary Conley is concerned. After devoting her entire medical career to providing women with access to safe abortions, she wonders if there will be someone to take her place when she retires.
“I’m from a generation that saw first hand the effects of unsafe abortions performed in back alleys or on the kitchen table,” says Conley, who traces her own commitment to abortion rights to seeing her girlfriend receive an abortion on a kitchen table when they were only 13. This type of experience kindled a passion for the pro-choice movement and motivated many doctors to include abortion among the services they offer.
But Conley says that the younger generation of doctors is less acquainted with the reasons why access to safe abortions is important.
Victoria used to be home to about a dozen doctors who perform abortions. That number has since dropped by half, with a similar trend occurring across the country. Chronic underfunding of the health care system is partially responsible. Every week, another GP walks away from their practice because they can’t afford to pay the overhead.
What’s more, family doctors who have managed to stay afloat lack financial incentive to perform abortions. Abortion is considered a minor surgical procedure, and the fees for first and second trimester abortions have been cut by 17 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively. The fee for first trimester abortions currently sits at the 1982 level.
But perhaps the most significant reason for the decline in abortion services is the antiabortion terror campaign. Every year, Conley trains young physicians who come to her wanting to know how to perform abortions. But when she asks them if they will make abortion part of their practice, they almost invariably say no. And the reason is always the same: it is too dangerous.
Since abortion was made legal and unrestricted in Canada in 1988, anti-abortion violence has skyrocketed. Clinics have been bombed and doctors have been attacked. In 1992 the Toronto Morgentaler clinic was firebombed, and in 1996 the Edmonton Morgentaler clinic suffered a butyric acid attack. In 1995 and 1997 Dr. Hugh Short of Hamilton and Dr. Jack Fainman of Winnipeg were both shot in their homes. In 1994 Dr. Garson Romalis of Vancouver was shot and seriously wounded at his home, and just last year he was stabbed in the back as he was entering his medical office. He survived the attack. The government has taken steps to ensure the safety of doctors who make abortion part of their medical practice. After the shooting of Dr. Romalis the government hired private investigators to counsel all physicians who perform abortions on how to avoid a similar attack.
Conley remembers the eerie visit.
“They debriefed me at home for six hours, describing in detail all the possible ways in which I could be attacked and what strategies I could use to stay safe. Take a different route home from work every day, they said. Always have someone else pull the blinds or curtains shut before you enter a room. Get a dog.”
In 1995 the B.C. government made it illegal to protest in front of abortion clinics, doctors’ offices or doctors’ homes. When a court struck down the Access to Abortion Services Act in 1996, the B.C. Court of Appeals restored the Act to full force, stating that in certain circumstances it is legitimate to restrict freedom of speech when individuals’ lives are at risk.
A vigorous police effort was initiated in 1997 to find the individual or individuals responsible for the attacks on physicians. Given the similarity of the attacks, police suspected that a single individual was responsible. Their prime suspect, notorious antiabortionist James Kopp, was arrested in France in March 2001. Doctors like Conley hoped for a cessation of violent attacks against abortion providers.
But the intimidation continues. Last year, a man was arrested hiding in the bushes in front of a Victoria medical office with a camera, a dreaded instrument to any physician performing a controversial procedure. These pictures are circulated among antiabortionists, identifying the doctor as a target. Conley has also had her picture taken at public talks, where she is regularly heckled. And she frequently receives hate mail from anti-abortion groups.
“To this day I can’t bring myself to enter a room with an uncovered window,” says Conley. She also installed a bullet proof window at her Victoria office.
The fear of attack is enough to frighten most young doctors away from formally associating themselves with the procedure of abortion. In this sense the terror campaign of certain anti-abortionists is working.
As a result, a crisis of severely restricted access to abortion is looming on the horizon. Women’s groups are complaining that women in rural areas, or even small cities, lack access to abortion. That is both an inconvenience and expense that makes abortion significantly less accessible for many women; especially those most likely to be in need of it.
Conley feels that a small sector of society is using terror to derail the democratic process. Rather than engaging in dialogue, anti-abortionist terrorists are forcing doctors to choose between their security and their ideals. Most physicians choose their security. This bargain effectively places “?heroic’ on the list of qualifications necessary to becoming a doctor who performs abortions in Canada.