Canada lost a giant on May 29th. The death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler signals the end of an era in which safe modern abortion clinics replaced dangerous back alleys in the short span of 20 years.
In most countries, reproductive healthcare – especially abortion – is the only area of healthcare that is governed at least in part by criminal laws, religious doctrines, and repressive stereotypes about women’s sexuality. This failed approach continues to kill 47,000 women a year and injure over 8 million. Before Dr. Morgentaler came along, it was the same in Canada. Abortion at any stage of pregnancy was criminalized in 1869. Not much is known about how women fared during the 100 years before the Trudeau government finally liberalized the law in 1969. However, 4,000 to 6000 Canadian women were thought to have died from illegal abortion from 1926 to 1947 (MacLaren & MacLaren, 1986), and during the 1960’s, documented deaths ranged from a few dozen up to 400 deaths per year.
Why and how did Dr. Morgentaler become the right man at the right time to, in his words, “single-handedly, almost” abolish a “restrictive, cruel, barbarous law which caused so much suffering to women across Canada.” (Sumner, 2011) What drove him to do what he did?
Dr. Morgentaler’s commitment, compassion, and ethics were rooted in his family life and his past (Dunphy, 1996). As a Holocaust survivor who had witnessed and endured tremendous suffering in Europe’s concentration camps and Jewish ghettoes, he felt compelled to use his life to help others and accomplish something important in his life. His father was arrested and executed early in the war because he was a militant socialist and labour activist, and the son embraced his father’s progressive values from a young age.
But it was his relationship with his mother, who perished at Auschwitz, that ultimately led Dr. Morgentaler to help desperate women in need of abortion care. He told the Globe & Mail in 2003: “I knew I could not save my mother. But I could save other mothers. It was an unconscious thought. It became almost like a command. If I help women to have babies at a time when they can give love and affection, they will not grow up to be rapists or murders. They will not build concentration camps.”
Dr. Morgentaler emigrated to Canada in 1950 and enrolled in medical school. By 1955 he had a thriving and respected family practice in Montreal. A caring doctor with a gentle touch, he enjoyed treating all types of patients and conditions, so he had chosen not to pursue a more lucrative specialty. In 1963, he joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal (an atheist group), which gave him an opportunity to connect his lifelong ethical values with his work as a doctor. Representing the group, he presented a brief to a Parliamentary committee in 1967, taking the revolutionary position that women had a right to abortion on request in the first trimester of pregnancy. Legal and medical groups had only been lobbying to ease the law and allow abortion for the “hard” cases, such as extreme poverty, rape, and incest.
His testimony caused a media sensation. Almost immediately, a parade of women started to phone or show up at Dr. Morgentaler’s office, pleading for an abortion. At first he refused, out of fear of going to jail. But by the time the law changed in 1969, he was feeling like a coward and a hypocrite. After hearing about one too many terrible deaths from illegal abortion, he decided to act by providing abortions in his office. Although his conscience felt better, he was now an outlaw, because under the new law, abortions could only be done in hospitals with the permission of three doctors. His family life suffered and he himself suffered deep anxiety about his future.
But with energy and determination, Dr. Morgentaler defied the law for the next 20 years, battling the government, the courts, and the police. He endured numerous arrests and prosecutions, death threats and hate mail, physical assaults and clinic bombings. He also achieved fame but used his notoriety to publicize and further his cause. The starting point was 1973, when he publicly declared that he had defied the law by performing 5,000 safe abortions outside hospitals, without the approval of any committee. He even filmed himself performing an abortion and had it shown on television, which quickly resulted in his arrest (although not his first). But he was certain that no jury would convict him, and he was right. Using the novel defense that he was compelled to break a bad law in order to save women’s lives, four juries acquitted him between 1973 and 1984 (three in Quebec and one in Ontario). His case finally made it to the Supreme Court of Canada, which struck down the entire law in 1988, declaring it a violation of women’s constitutional rights – in particular their right to bodily security because the court found that long delays and arbitrary refusals under the law increased the risk to women’s health and lives.
Of course, Dr. Morgentaler did not work alone, and owed a great deal of his success to the women’s movement and the hundreds of activists, friends, and colleagues who fought by his side and mobilized around his legal defense. His civil disobedience was a major catalyst for the budding feminist movement in Canada. The abortion law itself had already sparked an angry feminist uprising in Canada, when in May 1970, the Abortion Caravan set out from Vancouver to Ottawa. It culminated in 35 women shutting down Parliament for the first time in history by chaining themselves to seats and loudly chanting “Free abortion on demand!” This historic action helped set the stage for the ultimate 1988 victory.
Understanding what drove Dr. Morgentaler and the extent of the challenges that he faced during his decades-long battle helps us better appreciate the rights that we’ve won. There has been no one like him in any part of the world. Thanks to his unswerving dedication, Canada is the only democratic country in the world with no abortion law, and after 25 years, we’ve amply proved that we don’t need one (Arthur & Cawthorne, 2013). We can serve as a model to other countries, because doctors and women in Canada handle abortion care responsibly, with 90% of abortions occurring in the first trimester, and declining abortion rates since 1997. Criminal and civil laws are inappropriate in healthcare anyway, which is properly governed by medical policies and protocols and codes of ethics.
In contrast to many other countries, Canada provides full funding for abortion (except for renegade New Brunswick). Thanks to battles in the 1990’s by Dr. Morgentaler and the pro-choice movement, provinces were forced to comply with the Canada Health Act and fund procedures at clinics as well as hospitals. Full funding for abortion prevents a two-tier system that discriminates against low-income women (as happens in the U.S). It also helps integrate abortion care into our healthcare system, and ensures accountability and high-quality abortion care on the part of providers. In contrast, the lack of funding in the U.S. serves to isolate abortion care and providers, and increases the risk of unscrupulous or unsafe providers who take advantage of women for private profit.
Dr. Morgentaler performed over 80,000 abortions himself, and trained over 100 doctors in his techniques. He believed that every abortion he performed was a life saved, and he was right about that too. Women’s right to life isn’t just about mere physical survival (although legal abortion has literally saved countless lives) – it’s about being able to exercise basic rights and freedoms, including the right to live your life according to your own chosen path. Many abortion providers love their work because of the sheer gratitude and relief expressed by patients – and not infrequently, joy and even ecstasy. When faced with an unwanted pregnancy, a safe and legal abortion gives a woman her life back. What more could a caring and compassionate physician ask for?
Despite his many tribulations, Dr. Morgentaler lived a full and rewarding life in which he realized his vision of a better society, with legal equality for women. He inspired millions with his heroism and courage, and has already gone down in history as one of Canada’s greatest heroes.
Arthur, Joyce and Jane Cawthorne. January 2013. The Benefits of Decriminalizing Abortion. http://www.morgentaler25years.ca/benefits-of-decriminalization/
Dunphy, Catherine. 1996. Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. Toronto: Random House.
MacLaren, Angus, and Arlene Tigar MacLaren. 1986. The bedroom and the state: the changing practices and politics of contraception and abortion in Canada, 1880–1980. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Sumner, Wayne. February 2011. The Morgentaler Effect: What the champion of reproductive rights has to teach the right-to-die movement. Walrus Magazine. (http://thewalrus.ca/the-morgentaler-effect/)
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) is the only nation-wide political pro-choice group devoted to ensuring abortion rights and access for women. Founded in 2005, the ARCC acts as a “voice for choice,” carrying out lobbying and educational work on reproductive rights and health issues. (www.arcc-cdac.ca)