Listening to courage: stories from decades of abortion work

I decided to take some time to hear from them, to ask them about what drew them to their work, and what keeps them doing the work, to listen to their stories, and to be nurtured by their resiliency and courageous spirits.

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By Kate McIntyre

Once a week, I walk through a set of double locked doors and into a secure area where key card access is required to enter the back rooms. This is where I meet with clients to talk about their choice to have an abortion. Relatively new to the work of abortion counselling, I’ve learned more from each of them than any textbook, blog, or online thread could ever teach me. Listening to their stories has given me opportunities to refine my own values around reproductive justice.

January 28th marked the 30th anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision, when the Supreme Court decriminalized abortion in Canada. As this reproductive rights milestone approached, I began to reflect on locating the abortion work I do today in the context of history. I’m fortunate to work alongside people who have been doing this for much longer than I have. They’re the ones who, in many ways, have paved the way for people like me to step into this work. I decided to take some time to hear from them, to ask them about what drew them to their work, and what keeps them doing the work, to listen to their stories, and to be nurtured by their resiliency and courageous spirits.

Courageous and resilient just might be the two best words to describe Lynn Crocker, a now-retired nurse who worked in Winnipeg’s first abortion clinic, the Morgentaler Clinic.

“POLICE! OPEN THE DOOR!” The demand for entry to the clinic at Winnipeg’s Morgentaler Clinic – where women could access safe abortion services – couldn’t have come at a worse time. After navigating a crowd of hostile anti-choice protesters outside the building to get to her appointment, the client was in a safe place, where even if just for a brief time, she was met with respect for her choice. In this moment though, she was in the midst of the abortion procedure.

As police officers banged on the door, Lynn had the presence of mind to request they slide their badges under the door to prove their identities, a choice made to buy more time for the client who was having her procedure. At day’s end, the police seized the clinic’s equipment and took the staff to the police station, where they were arrested and jailed for providing abortion care. Offered bail on the condition to remain one block’s distance from the clinic at all times, most of them declined, resulting in two more days behind bars.

As I sat at my desk, headphones on, listening to the recording of Lynn recalling this story and others about her involvement in the abortion rights movement, I couldn’t help but see something of my own experience in her story. She spoke of her initial hesitancy to enter into abortion work. Then came an invitation from Henry Morgentaler to visit an abortion clinic in Montreal, to see for herself what it was all about. For Lynn, that trip changed everything. After observing the respect and dignity the clinic staff offered their clients, she returned to Winnipeg with resolve. When reflecting on what that experience drew out of her, she said, “I felt so strongly about people having a say in their healthcare.”

Lynn shares that she’s been profoundly changed by the clients who’ve shared their stories with her over the years. With quiet humility in her voice, she says, “Never did I think I’d have the courage to step forward and do this work.” And that resonates with me, because in my own way, I wasn’t always sure I’d have the courage to do abortion work either.

Growing up, abortion was an unspoken word in my home, school, and community. I wasn’t surrounded by anti-choice rhetoric everywhere I turned, but even absence of the conversation seems significant. When I came to work at WHC, I had a theoretical belief in choice but it was, at best, detached. I knew the right words and the right answers but the concept of choice wasn’t personal. There was tension as I tried to reconcile between the implied values my community held about abortion and the ways my own values were evolving.

When I had the idea to write this article, Sharon Young was the first person I thought of to talk with about her experience in reproductive health work. She worked as an abortion counsellor at the Morgentaler Clinic and now is the social worker at Women’s Health Clinic. And she was the person who encouraged me to be an abortion counsellor.

We met over bowls of hot soup, and what started as an interview, ended as a conversation, which as you’ll come to see is a very Sharon turn of events. Sharon says getting into the work was the most natural progression for her. “The work was never a choice,” she says “It is me and I’ve been lucky enough to find a place to be myself through my work.” After having an abortion, she noticed a recruitment poster for volunteers to join Women’s Health Clinic Birth Control and Pregnancy Program. She attributes WHC’s volunteers training as the specific experience that politicized her. Sharon embodies the work as the work embodies her – the personal is also the political – because she brings her whole self to her work with clients. She is simultaneously a learner and a teacher; her knowledge and insights are shaped by the stories her clients share, and she has this amazing capacity to teach you what normalizing feels like.

As we talked, she articulated something I’d felt since I began abortion counselling but lacked the exact words to express my own experience: “Reproductive health has taught me what intersectionality really is.” She describes how our intersectional identities – the unique combination of gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. – all converge when making choices about pregnancy options. Through 20 years of abortion work, she’s developed a way of drawing together her experiences and reflections into critical thoughts. Without fail, my conversations with her leave me feeling like there’s so much more I need to know.

Thanks to Sharon’s encouragement, I applied for the counselling job and was thrilled when I got it. On my first day, I met Suzanne Newman, one of the physicians at WHC who performs abortions (not all of the doctors at WHC provide abortions). I’d heard a lot of stories about Suzanne, about what brought her to abortion work and what keeps her here, but I wanted to hear these stories in her own words. We met together in a counselling room after a long procedure day. She sat down in a big chair, her feet not quite touching the floor and began sharing about what has brought her to this point.

At age 38, Suzanne was a stay-at-home mom of four children. One day, while on their way to get popsicles from the corner store, she and her children happened upon a crowd protesting outside the Morgentaler Clinic. Unsettled by the scene and the graphic signs, she confronted the protestors before clinic staff – for fear they would be harmed by the crowd – pulled her and her family into the clinic for safety.

This chance encounter on the way to the corner store led Suzanne down a road she never expected. Her abortion work began with escorting clients in and out of the clinic, protecting them from protestors. She was with Lynn when the clinic staff were arrested and jailed. Suzanne recalls how they stood on each other’s shoulders to look out the jail window. On the street below were their supporters, including Suzanne’s son in a Superman costume, protesting their arrest.

A while later, during a bike ride home after dropping off an article she’d written for the feminist magazine, Herizons, Suzanne decided to apply for medical school. At age 41, she began the process of becoming a family physician and learned how to perform abortions. Throughout her journey through medical school and beyond as an abortion provider, she brings an intuitive client-centred approach. She sees her clients as people and is moved by the stories they’ve shared with her.

Throughout our conversation, Suzanne refers often to Henry Morgentaler, redirecting any gratitude or attention away from herself and towards him: “This isn’t about me at all. This is about Henry and the work he did to make abortion accessible here.”

Through these conversations with Suzanne, Lynn, and Sharon, I’ve discovered that this tendency to defer credit is common among those who work in the abortion rights movement. They are quick to acknowledge that their work today is only possible because the past work of others who paved the way.

In this same way, I’d like to recognize the people that have laid groundwork that allows me to do this work. Although 30 years have passed since the Morgentaler decision, the drive behind the work today remains the same. A shared desire to provide dignified, respectful care brought Suzanne, Sharon, and Lynn to this work. For all three, it is second nature for their work to be centred on empowering others to make their own choices about their reproductive lives. Each of them shared that it’s the stories and lived experiences of their clients that has kept them doing the work.

Hearing about the lessons learned and the realities of reproductive justice from those who’ve been doing this work for a while has changed the way I see my own work. Walking through those double locked doors feels different now. My connection to the work is deeper. These conversations have animated my understanding of where we have come from and the importance of connection to one another through stories. We might find ourselves coming to this work in different ways and at different times, but learning from and teaching each other as we go along is becoming increasingly important to me. How else will we be able to set the course for the future without knowing where we have been?

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