In 2005, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was given an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario. If you are not Canadian, chances are you don’t know what any or all of that means. Neither did I, at the time.
I remember when it was in the news that Dr. Morgentaler would be receiving the degree, because we were discussing it at the dinner table. A friend of mine was attending UWO (or ‘Western’ as it is more commonly known) at the time and her mother objected to the famous abortion provider being honoured there. All I knew about Dr. Morgentaler was that he had something to do with the legal status of abortion in Canada. I had no interest in the pro-choice movement at that point, having only just begun to discover my feminist self.
My father was firm in his support of the honorary degree, and in an uncharacteristically passionate outburst, he declared: “Henry Morgentaler deserves that degree, and an Order of Canada on top of it! That man has done more than anyone else for women’s rights in this country.”
I was surprised, not so much at my father’s opinion on the subject, but at the ferocity with which he expressed it. Still, it wasn’t until two years later that I even began to understand what he was talking about.
Dr. Morgentaler is Canada’s abortion hero, and the Supreme Court decision that bears his name (R v. Morgentaler 1988) is our Roe v. Wade. Although we mustn’t forget – and the man himself always reminds us – that there were many others, mostly women, working hard in the battle to decriminalize abortion in Canada, there is no question that Morgentaler is the name we associate with legal abortion in this country.
The Supreme Court victory is only a piece of the extraordinary life of this man. Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923. His father was a labour leader who was killed by the Gestapo. Morgentaler himself survived the Holocaust, despite being a prisoner in both Dachau and Auschwitz concentration camps. When he was liberated in 1945, he weighed only 70 pounds.
After the war, Morgentaler came to Canada and studied Medicine at the Universite de Montreal. He had a successful medical practice in Montreal for many years; however, he was one of the many doctors who was covertly performing abortions illegally for his patients. There is some speculation that Morgentaler’s own wife at the time tried to obtain a back-alley abortion and was treated badly; for whatever reason, Dr. Morgentaler began to see problems with the criminalization of abortion.
The story of Dr. Morgentaler’s fight to change the rules is well-documented; his clinic was raided repeatedly, he was thrown in jail, went through trial after trial, and was vilified and threatened every day. After a twenty year legal battle, the Supreme Court of Canada finally ruled in R. v. Morgentaler – all Canadian laws criminalizing abortion were struck down, leaving a vacuum into which doctors have stepped to impose their own individual limits. While it remains technically legal in Canada to obtain an abortion at any point in the pregnancy, you would be hard-pressed to find a doctor who would perform the procedure beyond 24 weeks. The system has become self-regulating.
Dr. Morgentaler has opened several abortion clinics across the country, and at 87 years old he continues to struggle for better access to abortion. He is currently suing the province of New Brunswick, to force them to cover under Medicare abortions performed in his clinic in Fredericton. The province has illegal policies in place, forcing women seeking abortions to obtain referrals from two doctors (an impossibility in one of the poorest, most underserved provinces) and to have the procedure performed in one of only two hospitals providing the service – or to pay $600 to $800 out of pocket at the Morgentaler Clinic. At this time, the trial date has not yet been set.
In 2008, on July 1st – Canada Day – Dr. Morgentaler was named to the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in the country. It was a controversial appointment, but as my father proclaimed three years earlier, it was long overdue and well deserved. There is no person in Canadian history like Dr. M. – a man who had a horrible nightmare of a youth, who could have lived happily and comfortably as a doctor in Montreal, but decided instead to put his health, comfort, reputation and life on the line in order to make legal access to abortion a reality for the women of his adopted country. He is a true hero and one of the reasons I joined the pro-choice movement.
This year at our staff holiday party, I finally got to meet my hero. He is a sweet and humble person who, when asked to say a few words to the staff of his Toronto clinic, chose to toast us all and to thank us for our dedication to this cause. After dinner there was practically a line up to hug Henry. Like all people, he is not perfect – but what is truly admirable about the man is the effort he has made with his life to serve others. He is a hero, and a truly good person. And I finally understand what my dad was talking about.