Sorry about the delay on this. Here are my thoughts about the Morgentaler and the law conference I attended on Friday last week.
Toronto-January 25, 2008: Henry Morgentaler is a frail old man, who walks with some difficulty and needs help on stairs. He sat at the front of a lecture hall at the University of Toronto’s prestigious law school – some 200 students, doctors, activists and lay people in the audience. The average age was probably mid to late 20s, though there were also a fair number of grey heads in the crowd.
Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation opened the event, with the dean of the University of Toronto’s law school, Mayo Moran, looking on. Saporta lauded the efforts of Morgentaler (and gave him a hug) but remained concerned about further anti-choice action, and limits on access.
And access became the most common thread of discussion for many of the speakers: Abortion should be “available, accessible and acceptable” (Joanna Erdman’s phrase, UofT faculty of law). After Saporta, Colleen Flood, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy introduced Morgentaler.
And so a standing ovation later, the man himself rose to speak. Morgentaler’s voice was weak; the words predictable. He is proud of his efforts. “I believe the world is a kinder, gentler place because women have the right to make choices,” he said. His work
marks a milestone in the emancipation of women…
After he was done, another standing ovation – pro-choicers herald the presence of Morgentaler as if it was 1950 and Elvis Presley were in the building – it’s all weak knees and breathy excitement merely to be near him.
The morning was devoted largely to… you guessed it – access. Lorraine Weinrib, faculty of law at the University of Toronto, mused about how doctors are protected from performing or referring for abortions. “How did it come to be about protection for doctors, not women,” she asked. She also spoke about how the Morgentaler decision was the first time that she heard the sentiment expressed publicly that
women have lives, women have jobs, women have aspirations that are more important than an unwanted pregnancy.
Shelley Gavigan of Osgoode Hall Law School appeared nervous throughout her talk and acknowledged at the end that perhaps pro-choicers would be wise to acknowledge the “dominant ideology” of the unborn child:
If you must acknowledge the discourse of the unborn child,” she said, “if we must reinsert the vernacular of the unborn into the discourse, [then the] pregnant woman and the unborn child speak with one voice and that voice is hers.
Dawn Fowler of the NAF emphasized how few late-term abortions happen in Canada for social reasons. But then a particularly enthusiastic pro-abortion conferee from Holland stood up to ask this:
Sometimes women need abortions after 24 weeks, even for social reasons, and so why doesn’t Canada offer this?
Fowler replied that this lack of access is “physician driven.”
Garson Romalis, abortion provider in BC, spoke of his own work as saving women’s lives with some particularly distressing examples of a woman with six feet of bowel outside her body, who he was able to save, another jaundiced with infection, but she died. He spoke of how unique his specialty is because women are so completely grateful. “It is only my work where women say not only ‘thank you,’ but also ‘thank you for what you do.'”
And there were also interesting offline discussions: A very young woman from Canadians for Choice explained how, in spite of good access to clinics in the Toronto area, many women still self-abort. “You can find out how on the internet,” she said. Her concern? That there is still stigma attached to abortion, so women won’t come in to the clinic. I asked her how she hoped to combat the stigma – a genuine question, which was met with confusion. She reverted back to… access. “Some women just can’t get to a clinic,” she said, “What if you live in Scarborough [a suburb of Toronto] and can’t afford the bus ticket to Toronto?”
I was not able to stay and listen to the last session, which included Heather Mallick, journalist and Carolyn Bennett, Member of Parliament. But simply seeing Mallick up close reminded me that the person behind written vitriol might be fun – Mallick made a joke in the sunny lunchroom that she would stand in one of the rays and get a tan. It reminded me of a quote from Margaret Thatcher:
It pays to know the enemy – not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.
And all the old-guard feminists rolled their eyes and said “turn her, turn her into a friend… are you saying women can’t be perfectly good enemies?”
I remain convinced that most pro-choice young women are more open to a pro-life message than we currently hope. The empty rhetoric at the conference, the neutral tones of the discussion, the complete and total failure to acknowledge the difficulty of having an abortion and in many cases, the deep and lasting pain for women – it all makes me more convinced of this than I ever was before.
Brigitte adds: Excuse me for rolling my eyes all the way to my shoulder blades, but really. Worrying about the price of a bus ticket from Scarborough to Toronto when between 4 and 5 MILLION Canadians have no access to a family physician is more than a little déplacé. It’s almost obscene.