Henry Mor­gen­taler: cru­sader for abor­tion rights

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - — PAUL LUNGEN

To­day, the right to an abor­tion, or a woman’s right to choose, has be­come a vir­tual third rail of Cana­dian pol­i­tics – a pol­icy is­sue that par­ties avoid, out of fear of the public back­lash that would oth­er­wise re­sult.

It wasn’t al­ways that way. Back in 1967, when Henry Mor­gen­taler ran a fam­ily med­i­cal prac­tice in Mon­treal, abor­tion was il­le­gal in Canada. Prac­ti­tion­ers who per­formed the no­to­ri­ous “back al­ley abor­tion” faced a sen­tence of life in jail and women who un­der­went the pro­ce­dure could also be in­car­cer­ated for two years.

Cur­rently, there is no law in Canada pre­vent­ing abor­tion and the right to un­dergo the pro­ce­dure can be traced back to the ad­vo­cacy of Henry Mor­gen­taler.

A Holo­caust sur­vivor who grew up in Lodz, Poland, Mor­gen­taler be­came a na­tional fig­ure due to his stub­born re­fusal to con­form with the law of the day and his will­ing­ness to spend time in jail, in pur­suance of his prin­ci­ples.

Af­ter mov­ing to Canada in 1950, Mor­gen­taler com­pleted his med­i­cal stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Mon­treal be­fore open­ing a fam­ily prac­tice in 1955. In 1967, when he was serv­ing as pres­i­dent of the Hu­man­ist Fel­low­ship of Mon­treal, Mor­gen­taler made a pre­sen­ta­tion to Par­lia­ment about the dan­gers faced by women procur­ing il­le­gal abor­tions. Af­ter be­ing del­uged with calls from women seek­ing to ter­mi­nate their preg­nan­cies, he opened an abor­tion clinic in his Mon­treal of­fice a year later, even though it was il­le­gal at the time.

In 1969, the fed­eral govern­ment amended the long-stand­ing abor­tion law, per­mit­ting it in lim­ited cir­cum­stances – in a hospi­tal, af­ter a three-doc­tor com­mit­tee de­ter­mined it was nec­es­sary for the health and well-be­ing of the mother.

Mor­gen­taler con­tin­ued to per­form abor­tions at his clinic and was charged on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions for vi­o­lat­ing the law. At one point, he spent 10 months in jail.

In 1983, he opened abor­tion clin­ics in Toronto and Win­nipeg, which led to fur­ther charges against med­i­cal per­son­nel at both fa­cil­i­ties.

Fi­nally, in 1988, af­ter nu­mer­ous le­gal bat­tles, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abor­tion law as un­con­sti­tu­tional, leav­ing Canada with­out any le­gal re­stric­tions on the pro­ce­dure.

In an in­ter­view with the Globe and Mail in 2003, Mor­gen­taler ref­er­enced his ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Holo­caust as mo­ti­vat­ing his work for women. His fa­ther, Josef, a leader of the so­cial­ist Jewish Labour Bund, was killed by the Nazis in 1939 at a de­ten­tion camp. He and his brother, Mike, and mother, Golda, lived in the Lodz ghetto un­til be­ing trans­ported to Auschwitz in Au­gust 1944.

“I knew I could not save my mother,” he told the Globe. “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 mur­der­ers. They will not build con­cen­tra­tion camps.”

Over the years, Mor­gen­taler criss­crossed the coun­try, cam­paign­ing for women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights. He opened eight abor­tion clin­ics, which some­times led to con­fronta­tions with pro­vin­cial govern­ments that at­tempted to close the fa­cil­i­ties, or re­fused to pay for the pro­ce­dures.

In 2005, the Univer­sity of West­ern On­tario granted him an hon­orary de­gree, prompt­ing op­po­nents to start a pe­ti­tion that was signed by 12,000 peo­ple. In 2008, when he was made a mem­ber of the Or­der of Canada, there were protests, as well.

In 1992, his Toronto clinic was fire­bombed and he of­ten re­ceived death threats.

Mor­gen­taler re­tired from ac­tive prac­tice in 2006, but five clin­ics bear­ing his name re­main open to this day.

Mor­gen­taler died of heart fail­ure in 2013 at age 90.

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