Another eulogy for Wendell Waters…
… 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….Underneath Watters’s tough, often curmudgeonly, exterior beat a generous and empathetic heart. ..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.”
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.”..
Manning knew Watters as a founding member of Doctors for the Repeal of the Abortion Law (DRAL) and a key player in its broader-based affiliate, Canadians for the Repeal of the Abortion Law, but the two men also became friends and talked about their personal lives. “Like many people who have rough beginnings, he did his best to see that other people didn’t go through the same kinds of trauma,” said Manning, adding that “almost everybody I met during the time I was working on the [Morgentaler] case had a story to tell about a sister or a mother or a daughter who was affected by what I called the terrorism of the system. He was a very compassionate man…
Psychiatrist Nathan (Nate) Epstein recruited Watters as part of a cadre of Montreal practitioners he took with him in 1967 to the neophyte Faculty of Medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. One of his first jobs was heading up the clinical unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he “soon got into trouble with the nuns,” according to Bernard Trossman, because “he was an early supporter of Dr. Morgentaler and involved in DRAL and CARAL and a friend of [pro-choice activist] Norma Scarborough.” He began to be interested in community psychiatry and how society influences people and that, according to Trossman, steered him away from psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the individual…
“The sexual therapy he did with couples at McMaster involved the idea that religion in general and Christianity specifically were detrimental to people’s health because of guilt,” said Walt Michalsky, a former high-school English teacher who became a close friend through the Human-ist Movement. “Wendell realized that religion was both good and bad depending on how you applied it. It wasn’t religion itself that is so poisonous it is the application of it and the unwillingness to let go of ideas and ideals.”
Becoming a humanist was a natural evolution for a man who loved to debate and believed implicitly in free choice and the strength of ideas. He published many papers on religion and humanism and the polemic, Deadly Doctrine: Health, Illness and Christian God-Talk (1992). As he aged, Watters became fascinated by photography, spending weekends with friends and colleagues on tramps through the countryside shooting landscape, flowers and birds. Watters retired from McMaster in the mid-1980s and two decades later moved with his wife to Penticton, B.C., joining his severely disabled son Derek, who had contracted a virulent form of rheumatoid arthritis in his late teens, and his younger daughter Elizabeth, a family practice physician.