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Vancouver obstetrician was the first Canadian physician to be targeted during a spate of murderous strikes against abortion providers in the 1990s. (CP)
Vancouver obstetrician was the first Canadian physician to be targeted during a spate of murderous strikes against abortion providers in the 1990s. (CP)

Obituary

Garson Romalis risked his life to perform abortions Add to ...

As a young obstetrics and gynecology graduate from the University of British Columbia, Garson (Gary) Romalis wanted to experience a little bit of everything for his residency and internship. He opted for the medical cauldron that was Cook County Hospital, in the heart of Chicago.

Dr. Romalis was not prepared for what he saw. This was the early 1960s, a time when abortions were illegal, often the work of dubious back-alley practitioners, or desperate do-it-yourself attempts that ended badly. An entire 40-bed ward was set aside for women recovering from botched abortions. The beds were almost always filled, extra cots often lining the hallway. Up to 30 patients a day were admitted, suffering from septic abortions, some with gruesome complications. On average, one woman died each month. The impact was profound on the impressionable young Canadian, who worked on the ward in his first month.

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Motivated by his stint in Chicago and an earlier case involving the abortion-related death of a Vancouver woman, Dr. Romalis, who loved nothing better than delivering babies, was among the first in Canada to provide legal abortions after the law was liberalized in 1969. Dr. Romalis’s unwavering commitment to what he believed was a quick, harmless way to improve a woman’s life almost cost him his own life – twice.

 

A bullet changes everything

Early on the morning of Nov. 8, 1994, as Dr. Romalis sat down for breakfast in his west side Vancouver home, a sniper’s bullet smashed through the glass doors of his kitchen and tore into his left thigh. Gravely wounded, he fell to the floor, blood pouring from a large severed artery. Only his quick application of a tourniquet, using the belt from his bathrobe, prevented Dr. Romalis from bleeding to death.

As it was, he spent many months in hospital, and, despite intensive physical therapy, never fully recovered. The attack also catapulted Dr. Romalis into the headlines. He was the first Canadian physician to be targeted during a spate of murderous strikes against abortion providers in the 1990s.

“We’d been talking about the situation in the States and whether we should get some security,” recalls Wendy Norman, a family physician and women’s health researcher at B.C. Women’s Hospital, who knew Dr. Romalis for more than 20 years. “But we thought, we’re in Canada. None of us expected [the violence] to come here.” Over the next three years, two other Canadian abortion providers were also targeted by sniper attacks. The prime suspect in all three cases, James Kopp, who was later convicted of murdering Amherst, N.Y., abortion provider Barnett Slepian with a single rifle shot, never faced charges in this country.

Dr. Romalis had performed abortions as part of his regular obstetrics and gynecological practice for more than 20 years, though he was not nearly as well known as his friend Henry Morgentaler. “I [was] just a little guy, working on the edge of the world, looking after patients and minding my own business,” he told The Globe and Mail’s Robert Matas. The shooting changed everything.

The family was forced to find a new home. Bodyguards moved in. When Dr. Romalis was well enough to resume his practice, they drove him to work. Security became paramount. Even tiny everyday pleasures were lost.

“Having to cover our windows, unable to look outside at the garden, having to look through a peep hole before going out. It was a complete change,” his wife, Sheila Romalis, says. “We had to be taught how to live a completely secure life.”

Worst of all, perhaps, the physical demands and uncertain timing of deliveries forced an end to his great joy, obstetrics. Yet, Dr. Romalis was not prepared to step away from performing abortions. After the two talked it over, Ms. Romalis remembers, her husband concluded: “I am a doctor. That’s who I am. I treat my patients. All patients.” She backed his decision wholeheartedly.

In fact, the shooting strengthened his commitment. Never a crusader, he spoke out on the issue for the first time. “These acts of terrorism are designed to frighten doctors into not performing abortions and they threaten the health of women,” he told the Canadian Medical Association Journal. “I am careful, but I am not afraid.”

 

A knife in the back

 

Then, shockingly, less than six years after he was shot, Dr. Romalis was targeted again. In the lobby of his medical clinic, someone plunged a six-inch knife into his back. Fortunately, no major organs were hit and Dr. Romalis was able to recover after six days in hospital. Nonetheless, the second attack stunned the country once more, and prompted Dr. Romalis to tighten security. He wore a bulletproof vest to work and opted to leave clinical practice so as not to endanger others, restricting his services exclusively to abortions.

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