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'Heroes In My Head': The Clinic Will Stay Open

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Part Two 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.

On October 14, 1984, Dr. Morgentaler and his colleagues stood trial for performing abortions at the Toronto clinic. I remember only three things from the trial. First, the anti-Semitism. It so happened that Henry, his lawyer Morris Manning, and I -- the three most visible people on the pro-choice side -- were all Jewish. More than one cartoon exaggerated Morgentaler’s Jewish features and another looked like something drawn up by the Nazis to mobilize hatred against the Jews. People would drive by the clinic and scream, “They only kill Christian babies in there.”

The second thing I remember is that I was an unindicted co-conspirator, which means they were thinking about indicting me for conspiracy, however unlikely.

Finally, I remember Manning’s closing argument to the jury: “Send a message to the Attorney General saying, ‘Stop prosecuting doctors for helping women’... You can say we can’t stand for this anymore. That we won’t stand for this anymore.”

We were all blown away by his moving and brilliant summary. No doubt Henry’s testimony also had a tremendous impact on the jury of six women and six men. After a hushed courtroom heard his history of survival in the Nazi death camps, he said, “I decided that helping people could never be a crime.”

The jury deliberated for only six hours and delivered the verdict: not guilty.

The victory was short-lived. On December 4, 1984, Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry announced the government would appeal the jury’s verdict. The next day, Henry announced the Toronto clinic would re-open on January 7, 1985. McMurtry said it was up to the Toronto police whether to re-charge the doctors. At this point, Dr. Morgentaler had asked me to step down as spokesperson for the clinic. He felt I was too abrasive and too radical. He wanted the clinic to be known as a peaceful place, a medical facility. I agreed. Instead, I would use my media profle to become the spokesperson for OCAC. Carolyn Egan, Norma Scarborough, and I still met regularly with Henry and his lawyer to discuss strategy. We tried to co-ordinate legal, financial, and street activities. Manning understood that public support was essential to influence the judges. We often disagreed, but we continued to work together.

The anti-abortion groups decided that they would demonstrate in front of the clinic every day so that patients were forced to cross a picket line of aggressive people often carrying horrible pictures. To protect the patients, we put out a call for women and men to meet the patients, walk them into the clinic, and escort them home if they wished. Hundreds of people responded, and over the next few years formed a cadre of support for the clinic and the movement. We also won a contested resolution at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention, which meant that we had not only the official support of the labour movement, but also a lot help to get through the difficult moments of the struggle.

On February 12, 1985, Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Carter sent a pastoral letter to 196 parishes, calling on them to mobilize with the Right to Life demonstrators in an attempt to shut down the clinic. OCAC called for a demonstration at Queen’s Park on February 22, to protest their attempts to shut down the clinic. CARAL, the more moderate pro-choice group, was against calling a counter-demonstration, thinking we wouldn’t be able to out-mobilize the Catholic Church. Up until then our biggest demonstration had consisted of 5,000 supporters. The Catholic Church had mobilized more than that over four days. We were getting worried.

I will never forget the day of that Queen’s Park protest. Standing on the steps of the Legislature, I was overwhelmed by the thousands upon thousands of people streaming out of the subway. People had come from all over southern Ontario. By our count around 15,000 people had shown up to the demonstration. This, I believe, was the turning point in the struggle.

On October 1, 1985, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled against Morgentaler, set aside the jury’s verdict, and called for a new trial. As a matter of course, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the arguments.

Despite the Appeal Court decision, Henry kept the clinic open and OCAC continued to organize support through rallies, public speaking, media work, and debates.

Shortly thereafter, OCAC had a major dispute with Morris Manning, Henry’s lawyer. At the time, Manning was defending a couple of companies who were trying to break unions in high-profile cases. Not only did we worry it might undermine some of our union support but many of us objected in principle. We had asked Henry to fire Morris but he refused. I was very upset about it. We decided that I would go to Montreal with two female labour leaders to try to persuade him.

We met Henry in his hotel room. He argued that lawyers were hired hands and it didn’t matter who else they defended.

“What if Manning defended James Keegstra [an Alberta neo-Nazi]? Would you get rid of him then?” I said.

“It’s not the same thing,” Henry insisted.
“It is for me,” I replied.
I’m surprised he didn’t ask me to leave. The other two women were horrified that I would say such a thing. Henry asked to talk to me privately and we went down to the hotel bar. “I know you’re doing this because you believe it’s the right thing for the movement, Judy. I hope you realize that I’m insisting on keeping Morris for the same reason. The most important thing is that it doesn’t interfere with our friendship.”

I was genuinely moved. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that our friendship was important to him. I knew my role in the movement was important to him, but I didn’t know that he cared about me. I also realized then that I cared about him. On some level, he helped me understand the importance of personal relationships in overcoming such a difficult struggle. More than that, he was a model of courage with an open heart, whereas I was courageous because I couldn’t feel fear.

Henry didn’t fire Morris, but as a compromise he did criticize Morris publicly for taking that case. In retrospect I think he was right and I was wrong.

It would take another four years for the Supreme Court to rule on abortion. During those four years I had resigned as spokesperson for OCAC and run as a candidate for the Ontario New Democratic Party. Because I was no longer the spokesperson for OCAC, I didn’t travel to Ottawa with Henry to hear the Supreme Court decision. I stayed in Toronto. OCAC called on supporters to wait outside the clinic. As soon as the decision came down, Carolyn Egan, the founder of OCAC, would call us from Ottawa.

As we were waiting, a reporter tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Just heard from our guy in Ottawa. The Supreme Court struck down the abortion law based on a woman’s right to security of the person.”

I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t believe her. We thought we might win, but not on a matter of principle. Security of the person was, in essence, our primary argument for overturning the current law: a woman had a right to control her own body. A few minutes later, we got the word. The journalist had been correct.

On January 28, 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the abortion law violated Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, infringing upon a woman’s right to “life, liberty, and security of the person.” Chief Justice Brian Dickson wrote: “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus an infringement of security of the person.”

It was a total victory.

We were jubilant. The reporters wanted to interview me, but I declined because I was no longer a spokesperson for OCAC or the clinic. But they persisted.

“How do you feel, Judy?” one of them yelled.
“I feel great!” I said, jumping up in the air. “I feel great!” the clip appeared on almost every television newscast, running just after Dr. Morgentaler raised the V for Victory sign as he walked out of the courtroom with Norma Scarborough and Carolyn Egan.

A few years later, I met Chief Justice Brian Dickson, who had penned the majority court decision. He told me of all the things he had done in his life, the Morgentaler decision was what he was most proud of.

For most of those years, the intense waves of activism kept my head above water. I had finished with therapy midway through this period, but two things emerged close to the end of my treatment that have stayed with me.

At one particular session, an angry male voice emerged from deep inside me. I didn’t seem to be controlling it, but I could hear it. Mark explained it was a dissociated ego state, quite common in people who are burying a part of themelves. But soon the Voice emerged again, and I had to talk to it. Now I believe it was one of my alter personalities.

For weeks and even months the Voice would speak to me. I could control whether it spoke out loud, but I could not control when it spoke to me. The Voice was the cynic who thought every gesture of kindness was motivated by some kind of evil intent. “Oh yeah, what does he want?” the Voice told me I couldn’t trust anyone and had to rely only on myself. Mark, my therapist, told me to listen to the caution, which was often justified, but not to generalize it; I was capable of knowing who to trust and who not to trust.

The Voice was worried about Jeremiah, a man I had started seeing about a year after Ken left. He was handsome, charismatic, and intelligent. I didn’t usually get involved with dominant men, but he was persistent and he was living with someone else so I didn’t have to worry about getting too serious. I figured he had an open relationship, but when I found out he had been lying to his partner, I ended it. He moved to Victoria soon after, but we kept in touch.

About a year later, I went to Vancouver, probably for a speaking engagement, and we got together. We began an on-again, off-again long-distance relationship that lasted for years.

Whenever I had contact with Jeremiah, the Voice would break into my consciousness, warning me that if I got more involved I would be terribly humiliated. I wrote in my journal:

I felt deep in my chest an anger so terrible it was like a lion’s growl and it was anger at whoever treated me badly enough to make me feel that expressing love subjects you to base humiliation.

I ended my relationship with Jeremiah, not from the humiliation the Voice had warned me about, but from disappointment.

After three years of therapy, Mark and I both agreed that I had made great progress. My sense of humour had returned, I was slowly but surely getting in touch with feelings like sadness, disappointment, love, even moments of happiness. Just as important, I started to become more conscious of my feelings. Paying attention to them meant I could let them go.

And then came the second thing that stayed with me: on my last day of therapy I was lying on Mark’s couch and a memory came to me like a dream. I was a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, and a man was touching me in a sexual way. The flashback lasted a couple of seconds. I didn’t recognize the man, but it was clear that I was the little girl.

“What’s wrong?” Mark asked, noting a change in my demeanour.

I didn’t want to tell him what I had seen. I was functioning and feeling good about my rising public profile, and I didn’t want to continue with therapy.

“Nothing,” I responded. “It’s nothing.” 

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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