November 8, 1994

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Jessica Shaw, PhD candidate, University of Calgary

Abortion evokes strong political and emotional reactions, and tends to be framed around arguments of morality and legality. However, women have had and will continue to have abortions regardless of their morality, regardless of their legality, regardless of what the foetus may or may not be, and regardless of whether they are offered in safe medical settings, or in clandestine conditions. The need for abortion is present for people in every social class, every region, and every belief system.  As the debate about abortion rages on, physicians continue to provide women with the abortion care that they need. In Canada, abortion providers are often stigmatized as single-issue activists whose entire identities are described with the derogatory title “abortionist”.  By some, they are imagined to be anti-woman, anti-child, and anti-family, and because of this, they are targets for harassment and violence. In reality, abortion providers are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, daughters, sons, partners, lovers, and friends. They are physicians who support families by ensuring that each woman is able to decide if, when, and how many children to have. In Canada, most abortion providers are family physicians who offer abortion care as a part of their comprehensive medical practice.

While research consistently affirms that the majority of Canadians support abortion rights, there is a faction of society that is anti-abortion, and an even smaller faction that expresses their opposition to abortion by targeting abortion providers for harassment and violence. Most abortion providers will not face acts of violence that are personally directed at them, but most will face harassment, and all live with the awareness that they could be targeted simply for the work that they do. For both new physicians and seasoned abortion providers, there is one event in Canadian history that forever changed the climate in which abortion care is offered.

On November 8, 1994, Dr. Garson Romalis (colloquially known as Gary) survivedthe first recorded sniper attack on a Canadian abortion provider. Over the next few years, Canadian abortion providers Dr. Hugh Short and Dr. Jack Fainman were also shot in their homes on or around November 11th.Similar November attacks on abortion providers in the United States of America lead to them being called the “Remembrance Day Shootings”. Though the Canadian providers survived, some of the American abortion providers who faced similar attacks did not. In 2001, James Kopp was arrested as the suspect of the Remembrance Day Shootings in both the United States of America and Canada. He was convicted of the American murders in 2003, is serving a life sentence, and has yet to face a trial for his suspected involvement in the Canadian shootings.

The Remembrance Day Shootings are not the only examples of anti-abortion violence to take place in Canada. Since the decriminalization of abortion in Canada, separate incidents of anti-abortion violence include: vandalism, stalking, harassment, arson attacks, assault and attempted murder. To this list, I would add the psychological violence that anti-abortion groups and individuals inflict on women, providers, and their children through intimidation, shaming, graphic images, and “sidewalk counselling[1]”. Despite all of these attacks, it is the shooting of Gary that stands out in the minds of Canadian abortion providers.

When Gary was shot, it was the first attack on a Canadian provider in their home, at a distance, and with a gun. When the kitchen window of Gary’s home shattered from a sniper bullet, so too was the perception of safety that most abortion providers had come to know. For physicians across Canada, Gary’s shooting was a reminder (and perhaps an intentional one) that providing abortions was dangerous work.

After Gary was shot, security measures increased at abortion clinics across the country. Extra doors, locks, and video cameras were installed,clinic reception areas were enclosed with bullet-proof glass, and staff were briefed on how to recognize potentially threatening people. Some abortion providers started wearing bullet-proof vests, and security guards were provided to give advice on how to make their workplaces and homes safer. Providers were encouraged to always check underneath their cars before getting in, and to frequently change the route that they used to travel between work and home. At home, they were asked to keep their blinds drawn, their doors locked, and their motion-sensor lights on. They were trained to think about how normal aspects of their lives might put them at increased risk for attack. Decorative hedges that bordered a home became potential hiding spots for a sniper, and routine activities likepicking up the morning newspaper off of the front porch became risky. Gary’s shooting also had a direct impact on people who were not abortion providers. Women who had abortions in clinics were also subject to an increased police and security presence, while children, partners, families and friends of providers all had to learn to deal with the knowledge that their loved one might be a target for murder.

Since the Remembrance Day Shootings, protestors have continued to demonstrate outside of abortion clinics, outside of abortion providers’ homes, and outside of the schools of providers’ children. Most anti-abortion protestors in Canada are not violent; however, the anti-abortion movement has a violent history that crosses international borders. The most recent murder of a North American abortion provider occurred in Wichita, Kansas in 2009. Dr. George Tiller was shot by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder while attending a church service in his community. The history of anti-abortion violence, and the possibility of future violence, makes even the most seemingly peaceful protest capable of inducing fear and anger in protest witnesses. November 8, 1994 was not the first or only anti-abortion attack on a Canadian abortion provider, but as the first murder attempt, it is remembered as the day that abortion provision in Canada was forever changed.

For a detailed account of James Kopp and his role in the Remembrance Day Shootings:

Wells, J. (2008). Sniper: The true story of anti-abortion killer James Kopp. Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada.

Jessica Shaw is a PhD candidate in social work at the University of Calgary. Her doctoral research focuses on understanding and normalizing the experiences of abortion providers in Canada. You can find Jessica tweeting about sex, gender, naturism, and abortion on Twitter @leftyfem

[1]Sidewalk counselling is the term used by anti-abortion advocates who stand outside of abortion clinics and hospitals and attempt to intercept women and their partners as they enter the facility.

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