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Brilliant doctor, graceful humanist

Obituary: Dr. Jack Fainman

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Dr. Jack Fainman in his St. Vital home. He is looking toward the area outside where the gunman fired from.

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Dr. Jack Fainman in his St. Vital home. He is looking toward the area outside where the gunman fired from. Photo Store

Dr. Jack Fainman, a Winnipeg pro-choice doctor who gained international headlines after being shot by a suspected anti-abortion gunman, has died.

He passed away while on vacation in Mexico. A service will be held Wednesday at Etz Chayim Synagogue at 1 p.m.

Born in 1931, Fainman was an obstetrician who delivered over 5,000 babies over his career, but also performed therapeutic abortions. However, that 40-year medical career ended on Remembrance Day in 1997, when a bullet ripped through Fainman's shoulder as he was watching television in his St. Vital home.

At the time, Fainman was the head of obstetrics and gynecology at Victoria Hospital.

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"It's 8 p.m. Dark outside," Fainman recalled in the memoir, They Shoot Doctors, Don't They?, co-written with former Manitoba attorney general Roland Penner. "I'm sitting with my back to a riverside window wall, watching TV. My wife Fagie is in the bedroom getting ready for company and then... and then... the sudden sound of a gunshot, a sharp pain in my right shoulder, just inches from my head."

Fainman never worked as a physician again due to the damage to his shoulder.

"Forced retirement at age 66 loomed in front of me, very much earlier than I wanted. A crushing blow," Fainman wrote.

The suspected gunman, American James Kopp, was found guilty of the murder of New York abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in 2003. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Kopp was also suspected of two other shootings of doctors in Canada who provided abortion services, but was never charged or convicted by Canadian authorities.

However, while Fainman may never have laid eyes on his gunman, he never doubted it was Kopp.

"He's already doing life so there's no point in bringing him up here," Fainman wrote. "But I know he did it."

Fainman trained as a doctor in Winnipeg's North End before becoming head of obstetrics at Victoria.

Dr. Fainman's career in Winnipeg overlapped that of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who had become an international figure in the abortion debate that raged in the '80s and '90s. Morgentaler, awarded the Order of Canada in 2008, died last May of a heart attack at age 90.

In his book, Fainman said the twin ironies of his shooting are that unlike Morgentaler, he never pushed for abortions, and abortions were a very small portion of his practice.

"It was only one per cent of my practice," he said. "But I felt in some cases they had to be done. When I did post-graduate work in Chicago I saw people die who had abortions before they were legal. That stayed with me."

In an interview with CBC at the time the book was published in 2011, Fainman added: "I'm a very strict pro-choicer. I think women absolutely should do what they want with their bodies and I just resented other people who want to take this privilege away."

Penner, however, said the shooting has overshadowed Fainman's "real interest": Delivering babies.

"He just loved that," Penner said. "But if he was asked to terminate a pregnancy... he would do that. But the idea of Jack as an abortion doctor is false, really. His joy was delivering babies."

Penner said over the years he has met many mothers (and offspring) who were Fainman's patients. "They all said it was such a wonderful experience being looked after by Jack," he said. "His career in many ways was brilliant professionally. But more than that he was such a humanist."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 A14

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