Posts Tagged ‘abortion’
The Grid‘s Jamie Bradburn writes about the tumultuous history of Henry Morgentaler’s pioneering abortion clinic at 85 Harbord Street.
When the Toronto Women’s Bookstore needed space to expand from its Kensington Market home in 1975, it settled upon the ground floor of a three-storey semi-detached former residence on Harbord Street. As one of the first feminist bookstores in Canada, the collective-run business quickly became a supplier to libraries, schools, and women’s centres who drew on stock the emphasized works by Canadian authors on topics ranging from health to non-sexist kid-lit. During its first few months on Harbord, store staff estimated that around 25 per cent of its clientele were men who were either curious about the concept or deeply committed to feminist issues.
During the spring of 1983, the bookstore learned it would have a new upstairs neighbour. Following a search delayed by threats of prosecution from the provincial government, Dr. Henry Morgentaler (who passed away last week), announced he would open his first Toronto abortion clinic on the upper two floors of 85 Harbord on June 15. The press was shown a freshly renovated space filled with plants and wicker furniture that Morgentaler hoped would create “a soothing atmosphere” for patients.
The clinic’s move-in wasn’t a peaceful one. Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry expected police to charge in if any abortions were performed; at the time, the only legal option required the consent of abortion committees offered by some hospitals. Anti-abortion groups promised plenty of protests. When opening day arrived, a man wielding garden shears attacked Morgentaler. Repeatedly yelling “bad people, bad people,” Augusto Da Silva was intercepted by pro-choice supporters (led by clinic spokesperson Judy Rebick) before Morgentaler was seriously harmed. Da Silva then waved his shears in the air, told the crowd to move back, then ran from the scene. (He was soon arrested.)
The inevitable police raid came on July 5, 1983. After a pair of undercover Metro Toronto Police officers arranged an abortion, other officers swept in and removed equipment during a three-and-a-half hour blitz. Morgentaler, who was vacationing in California, surrendered to police upon his return to Toronto two days later. The raid set off years of legal battles that culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down federal abortion law in January 1988.
85 Harbord became a battleground in the divide over women’s choice and a target for extreme anti-abortionists. Around 3:15 a.m. on July 29, 1983, a man who failed to break into the clinic managed to get into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. He set bags of paper afire under the stairwell, which ironically was near the pregnancy and childbirth section. A note left behind read “If your mother had taken your life away, you would not be living it up, Morgentaler.”
Morgentaler emerged in 1969 as one of Canada’s most controversial figures when he broke the law at the time, and opened the country’s first abortion clinic in Montreal.
Over the next two decades, he would be heralded as a hero by some, and called a murderer by others as he fought to change Canada’s abortion laws.
Morgentaler, who was born in Lodz, Poland, and came to Canada after the Second World War, emerged in 1967 as an advocate for the right of women to have abortion on demand — a polarizing issue in Canada. His abortion clinic in Montreal was followed by more clinics across the country.
“His work changed the legal landscape in Canada, and eventually led to the 1988 landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that gave women the right to obtain abortion care,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.
In August 2008, on the occasion of Morgentaler’s successful (if controversial) nomination for membership in the Order of Canada, I posted a picture taken on Toronto’s Harbord Street, near the University of Toronto campus, of 85 Harbord Street, the address that once hosted his clinic.
Now, in The Globe and Mail‘s words.
The story of this old Annex Victorian semi, among the storefronts on the south of Harbord, really begins on June 15, 1983, when Henry Morgentaler opened an abortion clinic. It was subjected to protests and pickets, and victories and defeats – for both sides of the debate. The drama might have ended in 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled that freestanding clinics were legal, but the rallies continued, reaching 3,000 strong. Harbord Street Cafe, at No. 87, closed shop, its windows papered over. A sign for The Way Inn took its place. The Toronto Women’s Bookstore moved down the street. Then on Victoria Day weekend in 1992, an explosion by arsonists blew the wall out at No. 85. No one was ever charged. A small apartment is there now, next to Ms. Emma Designs at No. 87. Earlier this week, Dr. Morgentaler was named to the Order of Canada.
(85 Harbord Street is small. Look to the left edge of the photo. I thought it was hiding from me at the time I took the photo.)