“Bravo for the Women of Canada”

Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2013.

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Globe and Mail, January 29, 1988.

As anticipation mounted for the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the country’s abortion laws on January 28, 1988, residents and business owners near Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic at 85 Harbord Street hoped the ruling would bring quiet to their neighbourhood. Since Morgentaler, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 90, opened his clinic in June 1983, they had witnessed an endless stream of occasionally violent protests. “We think the street has gone through a lot, and showed a lot of patience as it has dealt with all this for the past years,” observed Harbord Street Association president Neil Wright.

The first protestors showed up outside the clinic around 7:30 that winter morning. Police erected rows of barricades to allow pedestrians to move around the growing crowd of pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The pro side soon had reason to celebrate: in a five-to-two vote, the Supreme Court struck down Section 251 of the Criminal Code, which forced women seeking legal pregnancy terminations to submit to the approval of a hospital abortion committee.

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Toronto Star, January 29, 1988.

Morgentaler, who had crusaded for women’s choice in Canada for two decades, and whose clinic was dragged through the legal system following a Metro Toronto Police raid within a month of its opening, was relieved. “Bravo for the Supreme Court of Canada,” he told the crowd waiting outside an Ottawa courtroom. “Bravo for the women of Canada. Justice for the women of Canada has finally arrived.”

Around 7 p.m. that evening, Morgentaler greeted supporters on Harbord Street. By that point, the pro-choice presence strongly outnumbered the opponents still outside the clinic. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he declared. “I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

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Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

All three of Toronto’s major dailies supported the court’s decision. The Globe and Mail felt the pressure was now on Parliament to stop “hiding behind a bad law” and create legislation that trusted doctors and pregnant women “to do the right thing.” The Star called the ruling “forceful” and “reasoned” in recognizing that the Charter of Rights didn’t permit the state to “unreasonably interfere with the personal reproductive choices of women.” The support wasn’t unanimous—a few columnists raised objections—but even among the Sun‘s conservative ranks the consensus was that the court had decided well. The Sun wrote that the ruling was “logical, inevitable, and necessary,” and reminded readers that both the Canadian Medical Association and Ontario Medical Association had passed resolutions six years earlier that closely matched the court’s decision.

Globe and Mail columnist Michele Landsberg found the decision dizzying, in a good way:

At a stroke, the Supreme Court of Canada has wiped out one of our country’s meanest injustices. The abortion law, a shabby and cringing deal made among men who rule, and made at the expense of women, has been named for what it is: painful, arbitrary, and unfair. Those who have not been personally touched by the women’s movement may find it hard to credit the depth of emotion we feel today. It’s important to understand that the abortion fight has not been about abortion, but something which runs far deeper: the right of women to be autonomous.

Back on Harbord Street, the decision didn’t quiet the battle. As governments tried to figure out new abortion legislation, skirmishes at the clinic continued, culminating in a firebombing in 1992. The clinic eventually moved to its current location in North Toronto.

Additional material from the January 29, 1988 and January 30, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, the January 28, 1988 and January 29, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 29, 1988 and January 31, 1988 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Cartoon by Andy Donato depicting John Turner, Brian Mulroney, and Ed Broadbent, Toronto Sun, January 30, 1988.

One of the pleasant surprises I discovered while researching this story was that all of Toronto’s major newspapers agreed that the Supreme Court of Canada made the right decision to kill the existing federal abortion law. There were notes of caution (the Sun’s editorial strongly recommended counselling on alternatives and birth control, while the Star suggested some controls would be necessary), but they weren’t accompanied by troglodytic language. 

I was impressed by the Sun’s coverage—it was very even-handed, to the extent of a point/counterpoint piece where representatives from pro-choice and anti-abortion groups were given space to state their views side-by-side. There was one exception, and it’s a doozy.

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Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

Tough-talking, uber-conservative columnist Bob MacDonald felt his readers could “say goodbye to Canada as we know it today.” Yet the main concern in his January 29, 1988 column wasn’t the pro- and anti-choice divide, but the effect more abortions would have on the ethnic makeup of the country. MacDonald believed a lower Canadian birthrate would stimulate a larger demand for immigrants, and that “pressure will build to accept most phony refugee claimants.” And those immigrants wouldn’t be from traditional European sources: “Yesterday’s decision can only add to this already revolutionary change in Canada’s cultural, racial, and religious mix.” 

This must have made xenophobic readers feel better.

Actually, they were already out in force. MacDonald quoted a caller to the Sun who wondered why Morgentaler didn’t set up shop in India, where more money could be made curbing runaway population growth.

Cue a jaw drop heard across the basement newspaper room of the Toronto Reference Library.

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Toronto Sun, January 31, 1988.

Much classier was Sun colleague Douglas Fisher, who reflected on the history of federal abortion debates and laws in his January 31, 1988 column. Fisher recalled that when he was a federal CCF MP in the late 1950s he made passing references to abortion and illegal birth control information during a speech in the House. Veteran Liberal MP Paul Martin Sr.advised him afterwards to never mention those subjects again. “Nothing could get me in more trouble,” Fisher reflected. “His emphasis was: Leave ‘religious’ subjects alone.” Fisher checked Hansard from the 1960s and could not find a solid reference to abortion until April 1967 when somebody suggested they should be legalized (which happened three years later).

When it came to Henry Morgentaler, Fisher observed that “whether one cherishes or detests him, he is a brave citizen.”

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It’s often weird to see writers you associate with a particular paper show up in another. Such is the case with Michele Landsberg. I think of her as a Star columnist, but she had a stint with the Globe and Mail in the late 1980s, and it was there she commented on the Supreme Court. Here are her personal thoughts on Morgenthaler from her January 30, 1988 column:

Henry Morgentaler is an important hero of mine. He may come across as irascible or abrasive, words that reporters have used about him, but whenever I’ve spoken to him, he’s been gentle, rational and idealistic. In private conversation he would brush off the personal hurts; his anger was saved for the stupidity and inequality of the laws. A small man with a stereotypical Jewish face, a survivor of Auschwitz, he’s had to live with constant ridicule and anti-Semitic vilification from the more extreme of his opponents. He’s been dragged to court over and over again, thrown in jail (just imagine what jail is like to a Holocaust survivor), harassed and threatened beyond most mortals’ endurance. A doctor who could have become smugly affluent in quiet private practice, he repeatedly risked everything to confront an unjust law.

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The week after this piece appeared, I wrote an installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid about the Morgentaler Clinic’s Harbord Street location. Here is the text of that piece, originally published on June 4, 2013. After it was published, the paper gave my number to a caller who wanted to talk to me. Turned out they were upset that I had not included their conviction that one of the fiery incidents was an inside job. Note to future clients: do not give my phone number out after I write about controversial topics.

When the Toronto Women’s Bookstore needed space to expand from its Kensington Market home in 1975, it settled upon the ground floor of a three-storey semi-detached former residence on Harbord Street. As one of the first feminist bookstores in Canada, the collective-run business quickly became a supplier to libraries, schools, and women’s centres who drew on stock emphasizing works by Canadian authors on topics ranging from health to non-sexist Kid Lit. During its first few months on Harbord, store staff estimated that around 25% of its clientele were men who were either curious about the concept or deeply committed to feminist issues.

During the spring of 1983, the bookstore learned it would have a new upstairs neighbour. Following a search delayed by threats of prosecution from the provincial government, Dr. Henry Morgentaler who passed away last week, announced he would open his first Toronto abortion clinic on the upper two floors of 85 Harbord on June 15. The press was shown a freshly-renovated space filled with plants and wicker furniture that Morgentaler hoped would create “a soothing atmosphere” for patients.

The clinic’s move-in wasn’t a peaceful one. Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry expected police to charge in if any abortions were performed; at the time, the only legal option required the consent of abortion committees offered by some hospitals. Anti-abortion groups promised plenty of protests. When opening day arrived, a man wielding garden shears attacked Morgentaler. Repeatedly yelling “bad people, bad people,” Augusto Da Silva was intercepted by pro-choice supporters led by clinic spokesperson Judy Rebick before Morgentaler was seriously harmed. Da Silva then waved his shears in the air, told the crowd to move back, then ran from the scene (he was soon arrested).

The inevitable police raid came on July 5, 1983. After a pair of undercover Metro Toronto Police officers arranged an abortion, other officers swept in and removed equipment during a three-and-a-half hour raid. Morgentaler, who was vacationing in California, surrendered to police upon his return to Toronto two days later. The raid set off years of legal battles which culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down federal abortion law in January 1988.

85 Harbord became a battleground in the divide over women’s choice and a target for extreme anti-abortionists. Around 3:15 a.m. on July 29, 1983, a man who failed to break into the clinic managed to get into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. He set bags of paper afire under the stairwell, which ironically was near the pregnancy and childbirth section. A note left behind read “If your mother had taken your life away, you would not be living it up, Morgentaler.”

While the clinic suffered smoke damage, the bookstore was gutted. The back stock was destroyed, while recently renovated basement offices suffered water damage. With the support of customers, the bookstore set up temporary quarters in the Poor Alex theatre building at Bloor and Brunswick before moving into a new home at 73 Harbord in June 1984. The store remained a neighbourhood fixture until it closed in November 2012.

The fire increased the anxiety of neighbours, who formed an action committee to get rid of the clinic. Over 2,000 residents signed a petition demanding its closure. The Harbord Street Business and Residents Association soon arose and plead with demonstrators to leave their neighbourhood alone. Die-hards ignored their pleas; as Right to Life Campaign president Laura McArthur observed when asked if she was concerned about the impact of her group’s constant picketing on local businesses, “I have no sympathy for these people when they have an illegal operation in their neighbourhood. They should be joining the pickets.” For a time, a pro-life group ran a pseudo-restaurant in the adjoining half of the building at 87 Harbord, further exacerbating tensions.

When the Supreme Court decision was announced on January 28, 1988, Morgentaler arrived at the clinic around 7 p.m. to greet supporters. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he told the crowd. “It is also a victory for children. I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

The ruling didn’t cool tensions. Violent clashes occasionally erupted, such as one which resulted in 160 arrests from both sides of the divide in January 1989. An injunction against pro-life demonstrators from picketing in front of the clinic was granted in May 1989, but vandals continued to spray-paint anti-abortion messages.

At 3:23 a.m. on May 18, 1992, a blast blew off the front wall of the building. A gasoline bomb sent glass and debris onto Harbord. The clinic had just rebuilt its entrance following a firebomb attack that January. “It looks like a war zone,” one neighbourhood resident told the Star while waiting to return home. “This is stupidity…It really is.” The blast accelerated plans for the clinic to move to larger quarters—by the end of the year it settled on its current home near Leaside at 727 Hillsdale Avenue East.

The old clinic was demolished and a new 85-87 Harbord Street was built for office and residential use. Space on the 85 side of the building is currently for lease, while past tenants of 87 include Ms. Emma Designs.

Additional material from the July 10, 1975, July 6, 1983, and January 29, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 7, 1983, June 8, 1983, June 16, 1983, July 30, 1983, August 1, 1983, August 17, 1983, February 10, 1985, August 27, 1985, January 15, 1989, May 19, 1992, and September 28, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.