White Coat, Black Art

Amid U.S. anti-abortion laws, 1 of Canada's earliest pro-choice doctors says 'you always have to be on guard'

Dr. May Cohen, who fought for legal access to abortion, says that the fight for women's rights and access to safe abortion is never over.

Dr. May Cohen has fought for legal access to abortion in Canada for decades

Dr. May Cohen is a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her life has been chronicled in a new documentary The Gender Lady: The Fabulous May Cohen. (Jeff Goodes/CBC)
Listen to the full episode26:27

Dr. May Cohen, a renowned Canadian physician, witnessed a revolution in women's health care.

She graduated at the top of her class in 1955, and ascended the ranks in the medical field, despite being faced with a professional culture steeped in gender discrimination.

She is a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her life has been chronicled in a new documentary, The Gender Lady: The Fabulous May Cohen.

Early in her career as a family doctor, Dr. Cohen fought for legal access to abortion, which she saw as a fundamental part of women's health. 

She tells White Coat, Black Art's Dr. Brian Goldman that now, even at 88 years old, her fight isn't over. Here is part of their conversation.

You were a pioneer in advocating for access to legal safe abortions. Do you remember the first time a woman came to see you asking for an abortion?

Yes. I remember several times. The most striking memory is when one of our patients was admitted to the emergency department. She was dead as a result of an illegal abortion which she had because her first child was only nine months old.

I will never forget seeing her. You walk into emergency and you see her lying there. It was just terribly upsetting.

In 1969, the abortion law was changed in Canada. An abortion would be permissible if it could be shown by a committee of three physicians in a hospital that a continuation of the pregnancy would be a risk to the mother's health and life. You were on one of those committees. What was it like?

The thing was that "health" and "life" were never actually defined. So a committee could either be very liberal in your interpretation or very restrictive.

When they first established the committee at the Branson Hospital where I was on staff, I was warned by the chief of staff that the committee would only be allowed if we approved only abortions for women over the age of 45 with hypertension, or girls under the age of 12 been raped. And I said to him, I guess it's the grey area in between that is the problem.

However, when I went to McMaster University in Hamilton, I was a member on the committee there and we had a totally different idea. My interpretation was that if someone is forced to carry a pregnancy they don't want, that's a risk to their health.

May and Gerry Cohen, graduation 1955. (Submitted by May Cohen)

In the 1990s, there was a lot of violence against abortion providers. Henry Morgentaler's Toronto clinic was firebombed. Three Canadian doctors were shot by a sniper. One of them, Dr. Hugh Short, was in Hamilton where you lived and worked. How did that violence affect you as a pro-choice position and activist?

I wasn't frightened because I wasn't actually providing the service. Nonetheless it's disgusting. It's very upsetting to think that there are people here who are so fixed in their ideas about what the role of women should be as reproductive producers. It was very troubling.

Alabama passed legislation banning abortion in almost every circumstance, including incest or sexual assault. What goes through your mind as you see these states trying to systematically dismantle Roe v. Wade and access to abortion?

Absolute disgust, but also fear about the spread of the anti-woman movement. You always have to be on guard to protect what you gained through a big struggle.

May Cohen with her mother Mania Lipshitz and father Sam Lipshitz. (Submitted by May Cohen)

In 1991, you co-founded the first McMaster Faculty of Medicine women's health office, and this was a first in any Canadian medical school. What was the landscape of women's medicine back then?

When I went to medical school, the medical paradigm was that of the white, 70-kilogram male. Everything in terms of dosage of drugs, diagnosis and so on was based on that paradigm.

It was very necessary to begin to define the difference in terms of what affects women's health and what affects men's health.

People gather at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on May 19, 2019 during a march against the state's new abortion law, the Alabama Human Life Protection Act. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)

What do you think is the biggest fight for women in the medical profession right now?

There's a lot of fights in medicine. One of them is to eliminate harassment and abuse. Another fight is a failure to value prevention. Another is to provide sufficient resources to deal with rare diseases. There are a lot of challenges in medicine which face both men and women but violence harassment and abuse that is a more common problem for women way more than it is for men.

So what role do you think male colleagues should be playing in that fight?

They should be standing with those who are opposed to harassment, who are opposed to violence, who are opposed to limitation of reproductive rights and who are supportive of the progressive change in medicine.

Are you going to make allowance for the fact that women have the babies? You have to be prepared to stand up and fight for what you do.- Dr. May Cohen

How could the system make it easier for a woman physicians, for instance those who want to have a baby and continue in residency or become a specialist?

We should have 24-hour daycare for children located within the hospitals because if you're on call and you know that there's 24-hour daycare, that would make a vast difference instead of having to rush at 5:00 [pm] to pick up your kid.

24-hour-a-day care would be expensive.

Too bad. There are other things that are very expensive that we don't hesitate to use. Are you going to make allowance for the fact that women have the babies? You have to be prepared to stand up and fight for what you do. That's what I learned and that's what I've done. And I hope I've set an example for others to do the same.

Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hartline, dressed as handmaids, protest against a bill banning nearly all abortions at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala., on April 17, 2019. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

What message would you have for a young person entering medical school this fall?

That they're very, very lucky to get into medical school and that they are entering a marvellous profession. There are so many things you could do. You can make such a difference in society. I mean that sounds very trite, but it's true. And so I think anybody who goes to medical school now has to be prepared to work hard but to realize that it's a wonderful profession.

Dr. May Cohen's advice for today's young female medical students 0:37

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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