Giving women freedom is Morgentaler’s legacy


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It was an accident that Suzanne Newman went to work for Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/05/2013 (3416 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was an accident that Suzanne Newman went to work for Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

It was 1983. Morgentaler’s abortion clinic had just opened. She was a middle-class stay-at-home mother of four out for a walk with her two youngest children. They happened upon a kerfuffle outside the Corydon Avenue clinic. She saw protesters shouting and blocking the entrance to the clinic.

“I went over to tell them they shouldn’t be doing this,” recalled Newman, 66, in a recent interview. “We saw the craziness at the clinic. People with distorted faces, those awful signs. I started shouting back at the protestors. I was a mother of four and a woman and what they were doing was wrong.”

Clinic nurses pulled Newman and her children inside, fearing the confrontation would become physical.

Newman became a clinic volunteer. She was arrested and jailed three times for her work at the clinic. She spent three days in jail once, her charges eventually stayed. She remembers the pushing and shoving and shouted obscenities outside the clinic.

“It was a little bit irritating and off-putting.”

Newman went to medical school in 1988, when she was 41, and trained as a family physician. She made sure she learned how to perform abortions. Medical students have the option.

To understand Morgentaler’s effect on Canada and Manitoba requires a brief history lesson. He opened his first clinic outside of Quebec in Winnipeg in 1983. Clinic abortions were still illegal under the Criminal Code. Police raids were common. Doctors were flown in to perform terminations because no local doctors were willing to risk losing their medical licences.

The Morgentaler Clinic stopped performing abortions in 1985 because it couldn’t afford to keep replacing equipment seized by police. Newman and other volunteers drove pregnant women to North Dakota, where they could pay for a legal abortion. In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down the abortion law as unconstitutional.

In 2004, Newman and a group of women bought the Corydon clinic from Morgentaler and renamed it Jane’s Clinic. They turned it into a non-profit. Abortion was legalized in Manitoba shortly after.

The province, which had declared Morgentaler impossible to deal with, started funding clinic abortions that year. Women now have their pregnancies terminated at Health Sciences Centre or at the Women’s Health Clinic off-site location.

The battles between pro-choice and pro-life supporters were heated and sometimes violent. In 2003, American James Koop was found guilty of the murder of New York abortion-provider Dr. Barnett Slepian. He was also suspected of the sniper shooting of Winnipeg doctor Jack Fainman in 1997. The attack ended the career of Fainman, then head of obstetrics and gynecology at Victoria Hospital.

Henry Morgentaler kept the crucible of abortion rights burning. To pro-lifers, he was the devil incarnate, a baby killer. His supporters saw him as a concentration camp survivor and a brave advocate for a woman’s right to choose.

Recent changes to abortion laws in North Dakota have choice advocates alarmed. In late March, Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed three bills that would essentially make abortion illegal. The first bill bans abortions performed because of genetic abnormalities. The second bans abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks. That’s sooner than many women know they’re pregnant. The third requires abortion-providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital, something they normally don’t have. If the laws pass, North Dakota women may find themselves driving to Manitoba for abortions.

There were 3,918 abortions performed in Manitoba between April 2012 and May of this year.

Morgentaler’s legacy is a society in which most women are free to end unwanted pregnancies, assuming they live near a major centre where the procedure is available. They can have safe and legal abortions performed by trained physicians.

His other legacy is doctors such as Suzanne Newman, who embody the late doctor’s vision.

“I love what I do here,” she said, standing in a procedure room at her clinic. “Nobody likes abortion but I’m proud of my work.”

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