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'Heroes In My Head': The Abortion Fight in Canada

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Part one of Heroes in My Head, a memoir by rabble blogger and co-founder Judy Rebick, was published this week by House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto.

The 1980s was the height of the women’s movement in Canada. In addition to the battle on choice, women were fighting for pay equity, affordable and accessible child care, and gender equality under the constitution. There was already a network of rape crisis centres and shelters providing services to women and advocating for better laws and more awareness of male violence against women. Young women had established co-operative daycare centres on campuses across the country and were working to get government support.

We had the struggles of the ’70s under our belts, having learned a lot about organizing and lobbying. And there were more women in professional jobs, which provided both a financial base and a certain access to power that we hadn’t had during the previous decade, but women were still struggling for equality.

I knew some of the women in what became the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, who were active in IWD. Many of them considered themselves socialist feminists. At the beginning OCAC was a coalition of these socialist feminists with the more moderate women from the Canadian Association for Repeal of the Abortion Law (CARAL) and radical feminists, who saw men as the enemy. There were lots of differences within the organization, but the most difficult thing for me to deal with was the radical feminists who were hostile to male doctors, even though we couldn’t find a female doctor who was willing to work at an illegal clinic at first. I didn’t see men as the enemy and was particularly supportive of trying to convince Dr. Henry Morgentaler to open the clinic in Toronto.

The radical feminists were uncomfortable with our supporting a Morgentaler clinic. They wanted a women’s clinic that feminists would control. But when the first physician recommended by Dr. Morgentaler didn’t work out, we all agreed that it was better to have a Morgentaler clinic than no clinic at all.

Our first indication of public support for the clinic was at a rally we held in the winter of 1983 at an auditorium in downtown Toronto. Dr. Morgentaler was the featured speaker and I was the MC. People were lined up around the block to get into the room, which had a 1,000-person capacity. We knew there would be Right to Lifers in the audience, so I was ready.

When Dr. Morgentaler began to speak, they started chanting, “Murderer! Murderer!”

I asked them to stop, but when they wouldn’t I called out to the crowd, “What do we want?”

“Choice!” they responded.
“When do we want it?”
“Now!”
I got the crowd chanting “Choice! Now! Choice! Now!” drowning out the opposition and raising everyone’s spirit. The chant was used at future demonstrations and rallies. The hecklers were removed by ushers.

At the end of the rally, Dr. Morgentaler gave me a big hug. I was not much of a hugger, but I knew he was, so I tolerated it. “Judy, would you be willing to be the spokesperson for the clinic? I need someone in Toronto to do the job and I like your energy,” he said.
“I’ll need to discuss it with OCAC, but sounds good,” I replied.
It was the first time I had met Dr. Morgentaler.

The pro-choice battle gave me renewed energy and a powerful sense of purpose. But looking back, there were signs that I had still not completed the necessary emotional work post-depression (ed note: as described in earlier chapters of Heroes in My Head). I had done much valuable work reconstructing my personality with Mark, but part of me was still buried. Between my political activism and my job, I had little time to think about how I was feeling. I just barrelled through the days, avoiding any introspection, but something always stopped me.

That summer, I suffered a near-fatal accident. I was riding my bike on my way to Harbourfront for one of the many meetings I attended to build support for the clinic. It was morning rush hour, and I was worried I was going to be late, so I took Bathurst Street, which I usually avoided because of the steep hill and the TTC yards. I was rushing down the hill when my front wheel got stuck in the streetcar tracks. My body was thrown over the handlebars, and I came crashing down onto the road. We didn’t wear helmets in those days, but luckily I had broken my fall with my hands. When I came to, I was surrounded by worried people, one of whom was the man whose car had stopped inches from my head. I had a terrible pain in my left wrist and my left side, so someone called an ambulance. When I got to the hospital, the doctor, who spent more time flirting with me than examining my injuries, said my wrist was broken. I told him my side hurt more than my wrist.

“It must be a muscle cramp,” he responded.

That week I was scheduled to go to Oberlin College in Ohio, where the Socialist Workers Party was having a summer educational. Even though I had quit the RWL, I was still politically aligned with the group and kept in touch. The large campus was spread out across many miles. The pain in my side was gone, but I was still having trouble walking. Once I got home, I went to see my doctor. She touched my side and said, “Your ribs are broken, Judy.” The X-ray showed the ribs were not only broken but had separated. As soon as I heard the diagnosis, the pain was unbearable, and I had to stay in bed for a month to recover. It was a sign that I was still dissociative.

Fortunately, Alvin and Glenna had rented a cottage with a beautiful beach on Georgian Bay, and they spent time taking care of me. But my obsessive running and dieting were sabotaged by the broken ribs. Ever since I had lost the 30 pounds, I became obsessed with watching my weight, dieting, and jogging about five kilometres a day. After the bike accident, all I could do, and all I did do, was eat. I gained all the weight back in one month. The post-depression therapy with Mark was putting me back in touch with my feelings, but I was still keeping so busy I could push my emotions away. Now that I couldn’t do anything, I could not help but feel my emotions.

Just before it was time to go home, my parents came to visit from Florida. On the drive back to Guelph, I was still in a lot of pain, both physical and emotional. Alvin was driving, my father was in the front seat, and I was in the back. My parents hadn’t seen me cry since I was a little girl and I didn’t want them to see it now. I’m not sure if it was my father’s presence in the car or the bumps on the road, but my ribs, which were still hurting, got a lot worse. The pain was excruciating, but I held it in as long as I was in the car with my father.

As soon as we arrived at Alvin and Glenna’s house in Guelph, I asked if I could go up to their bedroom to rest. Once I lay down, the tears started to come. Crying turned to sobbing, sobbing turned to anguished weeping. Alvin heard me and rushed upstairs to see what was wrong.

“I’m in terrible pain,” I whispered.

Before he could say anything, my mother appeared at the door. “Stop crying!” she yelled. “Stop crying! What are you crying about? Stop it!”

“Get out,” Alvin said to her. “Go downstairs, you’re not helping.”

I think the look on my face made him realize that the weeping was not just from physical pain. He put his hand on my back.

“It’s okay, you can cry as much as you need to. Ignore her. You know how she hates any kind of emotional display.”

It wouldn’t be the last time Alvin rescued me.

When I got back to Toronto, I felt profoundly alone. Leonard had cut off his relationship with the family as part of his attempts to heal from our childhood, so his support was no longer available to me. My relationship with him was becoming more distant. He was also involved in a new therapeutic group. At his invitation, I attended one of the meetings and found it to be profoundly manipulative. But he was so committed I didn’t feel I could express my true opinion. To be fair, I’m sure he felt pretty alienated from me during my Trotskyist days.

I didn’t see him or his family very often anymore, so I plunged right back into my activism. On June 15, 1983, Toronto’s first abortion clinic opened, and I stepped in front of the man who tried to stab Dr. Morgentaler with garden shears. It was a moment that changed my life, cementing my public image as a warrior, fighting for women’s rights. It was also yet another warning sign that I was dissociative.

About a week after the opening, the chief of police announced that they had a complaint from a woman who claimed she had been forced to go through with an abortion at the clinic. The moment the news went public, the clinic received phone calls from the taxi driver who had driven the woman home and said she was fine until the cops stopped her; a nurse from the hospital emergency room who said the police had coached her; and someone from Immigration saying that she was an illegal immigrant and no doubt they threatened to deport her if she didn’t file a complaint against Morgentaler. We had so much public support that they couldn’t get away with lies and intimidation.

Then, three weeks after the clinic opened, Dr. Morgentaler and his colleague Dr. Robert Scott were arrested. Those three weeks were intense. Every day I would ride my bike from the Canadian Hearing Society to the clinic. The police were following patients home, trying to intimidate them, so OCAC organized what we called an “escort service.” People would volunteer to take the patients home. The escort knew how to handle the police and what the patient’s rights were. The escort service turned out to be a solid core of support for the clinic.

The day after the doctors were arrested, we held a big rally at Queen’s Park. About 5,000 protesters showed up. I was the MC and it was here that I really started to understand the power of public speaking. Through rough call-and-response chants, I could build the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd. In some ways, the pro-choice struggle was the perfect battleground: I could release my anger constructively by confronting a ferocious, sometimes violent, opponent in the anti-choice movement, yet I wasn’t powerless as I had been in the face of my father’s violence. I was empowered by the strength in the solidarity of the growing movement.

Death threats were common not only against Henry but also against Norma Scarborough, who was the spokesperson for CARAL, and myself. People used to call CHS, warning the receptionist that they would beat me up when I left the office. The worst incident was when a death threat had been posted to Norma’s apartment door. Then there was the time when a man tried to throw me off a subway platform. Fortunately, I was taking tai chi and I took my stance so he couldn’t move me. When the subway arrived, I ran.

I asked Henry how he coped with the constant threat of violence.

“Any of us could die at any time,” he said. “We’re doing what we believe in. There’s nothing we can do about some crazy who might come out of nowhere and take a shot. We can’t let that stop us from doing what we think is right.”

We also received an incredible amount of support. One time I was on my bike passing a big truck when the driver yelled out the window, “Hey, you’re the girl from the clinic, Sam,” he said to the guy next to him. “Look, it’s the girl from the clinic.” And then he gave me a thumbs-up.

Almost every time I went out for lunch or dinner with Henry, the servers would pay for the meals. From time to time when I was on the subway, people would give me money for Dr. Morgentaler and his defence fund.   

 “The courts are against us, the government is against us, the cops are against us,” Henry once said. “But the people, Judy, the people are with us.”

And so they were.

Judy Rebick is a well-known social justice and feminist activist, writer, journalist, educator, and speaker. She is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political, Occupy This!, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution, Imagine Democracy. Founding publisher of rabble.ca, Canada’s popular independent online news and discussion site, Judy continues to blog on rabble.ca.

She is the former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canada’s largest women’s group, and was the first CAW Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University. During the 1990s, she was the host of two national TV show on CBC Newsworld and is a frequent commentator on CBC Radio and Television. In the 1980s, she was a well-known spokesperson for the pro-choice movement during the fight to legalize abortion. She lives in Toronto.

Excerpted from Heroes in My Head copyright © 2018 by Judy Rebick. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.com

Heroes in my Head publishes Tuesday April 10 and is available for sale wherever books are sold.

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