There were two sides to Wendell Watters, the prominent Hamilton psychiatrist, family and sex therapist, academic and keen amateur photographer. As an intellectual, he was ferocious. A contrarian and a committed humanist, Watters thrived on fervent arguments about the importance of a woman’s right to choose, the psychological damage organized religion could cause in the name of God, and the “human obscenity” of people killing each other in warfare.
About six feet tall with a shock of wavy grey hair, he was a bear-like man with a loud voice, a booming laugh and a belly that grew larger with the decades. Back in the days when he was frequently writing letters to the editor demanding a repeal of the abortion laws, his wife, Lena, who regularly took her three children to church, received a visit from her minister.
“I’m really sorry for you that your husband is the way he is,” the clergyman said, perhaps anticipating a tearful confession about her wifely burdens. Ever gracious, she responded politely before showing him the door, and never crossed the threshold of a church again.
Underneath Watters’s tough, often curmudgeonly, exterior beat a generous and empathetic heart. “He was a contrarian but a loving contrarian. There wasn’t a hateful thing about him,” said psychiatrist Bernard (Bernie) Trossman, describing his former colleague as “very helpful to students, an excellent mentor and a feminist.”
Born into poverty and raised as an Anglican in paternalistic and colonial Canada in a community riven with sectarian strife, Watters had taken the smart boy’s route to a better life – attending medical school on a veteran’s allowance – but he never forgot where he had come from and how lives could be beaten down by repressive cultural and religious attitudes.
After Watters died at 88 of complications from diabetes on Aug. 17 in Penticton, B.C., his family received letters from relatives detailing how he had quietly and effectively intervened at moments of crisis or hardship, resolving difficult situations without ever claiming credit or recompense.
Thirty-five years ago, when Watters published his best known book, Compulsory Parenthood: The Truth about Abortion, the sentence for performing an abortion in Canada was life in prison, with the patient facing up to two years behind bars. The only legal way a woman could terminate an unwanted pregnancy was to present herself before an abortion committee at an accredited hospital – no matter how distant from her home or how philosophically opposed the institution might be to the procedure – and persuade a majority of the members that continuing the pregnancy would endanger her life or her sanity. Even getting a hearing within the first trimester was like winning a telephone lottery.
“He was a wonderful man,” said Morris Manning, the criminal lawyer who called Watters as a defence witness in abortion provider Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s criminal trials in Ontario in the 1980s and later used that testimony as the basis for his successful constitutional challenge of the abortion law before the Supreme Court in 1988.
“He had an in-depth knowledge of the system as it was working or, shall I say, not working,” said Manning, “and he had impeccable credentials based on his knowledge not only of psychiatry but also of the desperate situation that women [with unwanted pregnancies] were in… and he did his best to see that the committee system provision of the criminal code was done away with because he believed that it was causing psychological harm to the women and putting tremendous pressure on the hospitals and the physicians.”