I feel uneasy walking along Toronto’s Gerrard Street East, wondering where the young Asian couple in front of me may be heading. I am visiting Aid to Women, at 300 Gerrard. Next door in the same duplex is the Cabbagetown Women’s Clinic. Do they have an early morning appointment for an abortion with Dr. Manuel Buruiana?
They seem college age but could be just high school kids. They look attractive enough for a Club Monaco or Gap ad. He wears a baseball cap and khaki shorts. Her long, loose hair is tinted auburn while her short dress reveals a slim figure and bare legs. If she is pregnant she is only in her first trimester.
They pass a small woman and a man who are holding some literature. These are prolife sidewalk counsellors, and one of them, Robert Hinchey, follows the young people and speaks so quietly to them that I hear nothing. He tells me later that in the few seconds he has, he usually pleads, “You’re a mother now. You can be the mother of a dead baby or a live baby. We can help you.” They say nothing to him but as they climb the clinic steps, they take the pamphlet he passes to them through the railings. And then they are gone.
Moments later, two young black women approach from the opposite direction and also disappear into the clinic. The street counsellors are not close enough to speak with them.
Gerrard is bustling with rush-hour traffic. Across the road, in front of some low-rise apartments, an older Maltese man, Emidio Galea holds a sign, “Please Mom, Let your baby live. If you need help, visit Aid to Women.” He comes faithfully every Tuesday morning.
Robert tells me that Emidio is very humble. He has been witnessing at a distance but now wants to do more. He has decided that tomorrow he will silently hold his sign within the 60-foot, so-called “bubble zone” around Buruiana’s clinic, and face arrest along with activist Linda Gibbons.
The 300-302 Gerrard East duplex is a grim monument to the abortion debate, offering as it does, its rather schizoid services: come to number 300 for life, 302 for death. Further east stands a large Goodwill second-hand store. There is no goodwill to the babies who enter at 302, only good riddance.
Aid to Women is located above an East Indian grocery. I trudge up a flight of stairs, dismayed by the traffic already entering next door. Usually eight appointments are scheduled for nine a.m. at the abortuary. Thankfully I hear no noise through the wall. Linda Gibbons has agreed to an interview, but first I am shown around Aid to Women by Joanne Dieleman, the agency director.
Sunshine pours into the front living room and spills onto the comfortable sofas. Stuffed animals are suspended on lines like cheerful laundry, and new picture books are on display. A huge applique of a mother and child covers one wall, while on another there is a large bulletin board crammed with photos of babies and young children, such as you see in the waiting rooms of obstetricians. This room doubles as a play area for young children when they come back for visits with their mothers.
On the same floor there is a private counselling room, a washroom with pregnancy kits (tests are given free of charge), and at the back, a kitchen, the cupboards of which are brimming with donated baby food, formula and bottles.
The third floor is crammed with children’s clothing, winter snow suits, strollers and cribs. Robert also has a tiny apartment here. Out the back window I can see several late model cars in the clinic parking lot. Buruiana usually drives a yellow Corvette in the summer and a grey Mercedes in the winter. Sometimes there are all-terrain vehicles parked behind 302. Linda and Joanne ride transit.
Linda, 50, is a small, soft-spoken grandmother of four. Yet this is the woman who has willingly spent 60 months in jail for the unborn. She is a self-effacing yet articulate woman who speaks with compassion. She herself had an abortion 24 years ago. Two years later she became a Christian through a Christian Reformed church and today worships with a Brethren congregation.
In 1983, after viewing The Silent Scream, a documentary of an actual abortion made by former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Linda became pro-life. In 1992 she began work as a full-time counsellor at Aid to Women. Joanne describes Linda as “a really good counsellor who is relaxed on the street.”
In a 1996 interview I had with Linda for Christian Week, she told me, “There is no cohesive Protestant leadership in the pro-life movement and only limited pastor involvement. Protestant lay people participate in scattered efforts. There is much greater awareness in Catholic churches. Pro-life is mandated by the Pope. You can’t ignore the issue if you’re Catholic. Protestants lag shamefully behind.”
Because so many Protestant churches have fallen silent, Linda believes their members are more vulnerable. Many women write Linda saying they were Christians when they had abortions. The activist holds that we must protect all the preborn in society. “They are not strangers outside the realm of my responsibility. We are to love the stranger and the alien; that means all the unborn among us are ‘our’ unborn.”
Linda believes that the injunction forbidding pro-life activity within 60 feet of an Ontario abortion clinic is “not an order pleasing to God.” She refuses to speak to police or court officials after each arrest, as a show of solidarity with the child in the womb who has no voice or defence. Yet she respects civil law by accepting punishment, and in court she always stands immediately when spoken to. She has been called an “exemplary prisoner.”
Linda fasts twice a week and before every court appearance. Since she won’t sign probation, bail or parole papers, she is usually charged also with breach of probation.
Some pro-lifers, including ones in her own congregation, question why Linda “wastes” her time in jail, when she could be selling full-time at Aid to Women. Yet even within prison walls, Linda is able to counsel pregnant women and rescue babies. Somsri is a case in point.
In her early twenties, Somsri (a pseudonym) is one of 30 women (some barely 18 years old) who in the fall of 1998 were arrested in a massive raid on several Toronto massage parlours that were operating as brothels. The women had come from Thailand on false travel documents. They were working under contract as prostitutes hoping eventually to pay off the contract and live independently. Some were settling family debts in Thailand.
Somsri was placed in Linda’s cell for three months at the Metro West Detention Centre. She spoke little English but would, like the other Thai women, sing hauntingly lovely Thai melodies.
The detention centre is a holding pen which offers few programs while the inmates await trial and sentencing. Linda has earned the respect of the guards who often ask her to comfort some of the more distraught inmates. Linda structures her time at “the West” by offering morning Bible studies for anyone interested and afternoon English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, one-on-one. These are taught amid bar-room level noise and confusion.
Linda has taught English to Afghan, Iranian, Spanish and Vietnamese women. Somsri was her first Thai student.
Even on the inside Linda networks with the outside. She finds clergy and churches in the communities the women will be returning to, to support them spiritually and emotionally when they are freed. “After all the Bible study I don’t want them ending up in a cult,” she says.
She also has Aid to Women connect with other pro-life agencies to support pregnant prisoners when they are released.
Somsri was freed before Linda, in early January. Four months later, on May 12, Linda was sidewalk counselling with Robert, when she noticed a young couple entering the Cabbagetown Women’s Clinic. They already had the door open and Robert pleaded over the iron fence with them, “We can help you,” he said. “Don’t go in.”
Because her eyesight is weak, Linda didn’t at first recognize the young woman, but it was Somsri. Somsri recognized her former cell-mate and teacher, rushed down the steps and hugged Linda. Linda invited the couple into Aid to Women.
Like so many women Linda has counselled, Somsri was noncommittal about the abortion, shrugging it off with, “It’s up to him.” Somsri’s boyfriend was a legal Thai immigrant who had found work. The couple watched some video clips showing fetal development and the results of a suction abortion. Afterwards, they both decided not to keep their appointment at Buruiana’s.
But the court charges of illegal entry and prostitution still hung over Somsri. Robert arranged for them to see an Orthodox priest who is also an immigration lawyer. The priest is willing to sponsor Somsri so she can stay in Canada, which would have been virtually impossible otherwise. He will also charge her only for the cost of the documents she will need.
In June, Linda met again with Somsri. Somsri said her boyfriend’s family was buying her baby clothes. Robert drove Somsri to a community health clinic where she could get more extensive pre-natal health care.
As I leave the duplex at 11:15, the young Asian couple are leaving the clinic. They are again holding hands and now smiling. She wears sunglasses so I cannot really read her. She walks carefully on her thick-heeled shoes, after what I assume was a suction abortion. We go in different directions.
I have parked across the street. I notice a taxi pull up to the clinic. The driver rings the intercom outside. The doors are wide open at Aid to Women, but you have to be “buzzed in” at the abortuary. The driver returns to his taxi and waits for his ride.
Gerrard Street East is Toronto’s death row. I drive past number 157, The Scott Clinic. It’s windows are shuttered and there is no sign outside the abortuary. Across the street is a park with children’s swings. Again life and death are so incongruously juxtaposed. It is here, in front of Scott’s clinic that Linda and Emidio are planning to be arrested tomorrow, June 9.
“If I went to jail for a lifetime and saved only one baby, it would be worth it,” Linda tells me in a phone interview from jail, the day after her arrest. “If no one violates these injunctions, we concede to the pro-abortionists. The court is in an alliance to protect the abortionists’ businesses. Either Morgentaler goes to jail or we will. The injunction tells us, ‘You may not voice your dissent. Keep it below the radar screen of national public opinion.’ We must insist on a public witness.
“I act as though the injunction doesn’t exist,” Linda continues. “We cannot in good conscience shrink from persecution. I am totally free to do what God calls me to do. It will cost but I’m willing to suffer the repercussions.”
Linda feels some real progress is being made. The police recently told an abortion clinic attendant that no one could be arrested for breaking the injunction unless the Sheriff of Toronto was personally present. So it’s hoped that the validity of the temporary injunction (it will be five years old in August) is coming under increasing scrutiny by the court.
“The court is rethinking the injunction,” says Linda. “It can no longer be arbitrarily applied.”
Robert, Joanne and Linda did the grim arithmetic at the Gerrard duplex. They calculated that about 15 babies are aborted daily at Buruiana’s clinic, around 75 a week, roughly 3,600 a year. Grisly statistics indeed. They also estimate that Aid to Women saves about two babies a week, perhaps a 100 to 150 a year – as well as the babies’ mothers. Thirty-six children dead – a class full – for every one, or perhaps two, saved.
“Don’t ask, ‘What can I do?'” says Linda, “but given the horrendous situation, ask, ‘Have I done all I can?'”