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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.

“I have had to live with security measures that I never dreamed about when I was learning to deliver babies,” he told a gathering at the University of Toronto in 2008 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to strike down Canada’s abortion law.

Dr. Romalis remained firm in his resolve to provide a safe, legal service for women, many of whom, he noted, were in the biggest trouble of their lives.

“By performing a five-minute operation, in comfort and dignity, I can give them back their lives,” he would say. At 76, Dr. Romalis was still performing abortions when a severe attack of pancreatitis sent him to hospital, where he died on Jan. 30.

“Because of what happened to him over his life, he is known as a pioneer and an iconic figure, not just in Vancouver, but in the medical and women’s communities of North American,” says Dorothy Shaw, vice-president of medical affairs at B.C. Women’s Hospital. “His determination to persevere in the face of not one, but two murder attempts is remarkable. He was so committed. He was never afraid.”

Those closest to him consider it unfortunate that Dr. Romalis came to be known almost exclusively for the pair of violent attacks against him and his subsequent abortion activism. They remember him as an extraordinary physician dedicated to his craft, a long-time clinical professor at UBC’s medical school, and a family man intensely devoted to his wife, daughters and grandchildren, as well as his community.

Away from the public eye, Dr. Romalis served a term as president of the local Beth Israel synagogue, while regularly volunteering for charitable campaigns to help the homeless.

 

From Winnipeg to Vancouver

 

Garson Romalis was born Oct. 23, 1937, in the turbulent, working-class North End of Winnipeg, the older of two brothers. His paternal grandparents had arrived from Moldova near the turn of the last century, fleeing the pogroms sweeping through the region. His father, Louis Romalis, worked at numerous jobs. Early on, he also found time to wrestle competitively, before his fiancée, Lillian Posner, ordered him to stop, or their marriage was off. Louis Romalis had many brothers and sisters, allowing young Gary to grow up surrounded by cousins, an experience that helped forge his lifelong appreciation of family.

His parents moved to Vancouver when Gary was 10. During his active teenage years in the city’s Kitsilano area, he played sports and set his mind to becoming a doctor. A family friend steered him toward obstetrics and gynecology.

He was already well-established when the 30-year old doctor had a fateful blind date with Sheila Balshine, a 22-year old architectural designer. Bantering back and forth all evening, the two fell hard for each other. Two and a half months later, on his 31st birthday, Dr. Romalis proposed. They were married Feb. 3, 1969. “There’s a Yiddish word: b’shert,” Ms. Romalis says. “It was meant to be.”

The couple spent two of their early married years in Israel. Their first child, Lisa, was born there.

They returned to Vancouver in 1972, mostly because they missed their close-knit families. Daughters Tara and Dana soon followed.

Dr. Romalis joined a thriving Vancouver practice as the youngest partner of three other obstetrics and gynecology physicians, remaining there for more than 20 years, until the shooting.

He particularly relished his obstetrics duties. “Gary just loved holding newborns and [seeing] the looks on the parents’ faces,” Ms. Romalis says. “He could hold infants, calm them. He had a way with them.”

As years went by Dr. Romalis worried that the retirement of older, experienced doctors would lead to a shortage of qualified abortionists.

He also felt abortions were being taken for granted. Medical schools did not seem to consider them a priority, perhaps because of the stigma that still clung to the procedure.

Teaching became Dr. Romalis’s new passion. Whenever he travelled, he would search out other abortion providers to see what he could learn from them.

In turn, he inspired students to become proficient in the practice. Rarely did he perform abortions in his later years without several aspiring gynecologists looking on. He was a mentor to hundreds. “It was not to advocate for abortions; it was to ensure there were skilled hands to continue in his place,” Dr. Norman says.

Dr. Romalis leaves his brother, Coleman; wife, Sheila; daughters Lisa, Tara and Dana; and his six grandchildren.

 

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