Protecting Abortion Providers

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By Noelle Boughton

The sniper shootings of five Canadian and U.S. doctors who provided therapeutic abortions have police, clinics and medical associations in Canada taking extra measures to protect abortion providers, but tight-lipped about what that security is. "People are concerned, and afraid, and I don't blame them," says Inspector Keith McCaskill of the Winnipeg Police Service, spokesperson for the nine-agency U.S. Canadian task force trying to identify the sniper. "You have people who could be at risk."

Stepped-up security follows the October 23 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian of Amherst, New York. In the past four years, four other doctors have been shot. Three were Canadians - Gordon Romalis of Vancouver, shot in the thigh Nov. 8, 1994; Hugh Short of Ancaster, Ontario, hit in the elbow Nov. 10, 1995; and Jack Fainman of Winnipeg, shot in the shoulder Nov. 11, 1997. The last unnamed doctor was shot in Munroe County, New York on Oct. 28, 1997.

McCaskill notes all the doctors were shot in the dark, with a high-powered rifle, through a rear window of their home. All were hit in late October to mid-November but "the person or persons involved are the only ones who know why they picked those dates." The time of year could change so police are warning doctors to continue their vigilance beyond November.

Bonnie Johnson, Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada in Ottawa, doesn't blame police for not revealing the security. She is relieved "it appears they are finally taking it seriously. I wish they'd taken it seriously five years ago when we were telling them about this."

Now she wants authorities to take it one step further. While Johnson says pro-life supporters "clearly have a right to their opinion and to demonstrate peacefully and lobby, and do everything they can to see that their point is made, their language supports this terrorism. How do we stop that language from being put forward? If there was some legal way to stop that, then we might be able to calm down the extremists."

On November 9, U.S. Attorney-General Janet Reno announced a national task force to investigate anti-abortion violence and offered a $500,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of Dr. Slepian's killer.

Canadian governments have not followed suit. Dan Brien, former Solicitor General Andy Scott's Communications Assistant, says Scott spoke to the RCMP Commissioner and was reassured the investigation will receive "whatever resources" necessary. Some provincial governments are being kept informed by police, but are not involved. "There has been communication between the police and government," says Wyman Sangster, Director of Public Safety for Manitoba's Department of Justice, "but there are no plans that I am aware of to make anything public or take any programming steps at this time."

That leaves the police and medical practitioners. "Police agencies across Canada have been notified to talk to different medical practitioners at risk as well as medical associations," says McCaskill. Agencies are lecturing groups on request, meeting with doctors and providing security checklists to clinics.

Some, such as the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, improved security after the November 1997 shooting in that city and recently stepped it up again.

"But the issue here is people have to take their own security precautions," says McCaskill. "All the shootings have been in darkness through a window in the house. If you're out in the dark and the lights are on, it's like you're sitting in a fish bowl. There are certain obvious steps doctors can take, and ones not so obvious, and we have provided them with that information."

Meanwhile, medical associations are not commenting. Spokespeople for the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, and Manitoba Medical Association all declined comment, faxing press releases about the rewards they are offering through the police and articles from their newsletters.

"Physicians are very concerned about appearing to be prepared," says Dr. Ken Brown, Registrar of The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba. "The police have advised us we might create the will to retaliate." In an effort to send out signals of "being aware" rather than "defiant", the College is taking educational steps to prompt physicians to be more defensively aware.

Many associations, such as the CMA and Manitoba and Alberta Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, are giving members security tips in their newsletters. Away from work, they can ask police for a home safety audit, not list home phones, carry a cell phone and not travel alone.

For more information, contact:

Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada
Suite 403, One Nicholas St.
Ottawa, ON K1N 7B7 Canada
Tel.: (613) 241-4474
Fax: (613) 241-7550