Henry Morgentaler, 1923-2013, R.I.P.

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Commentary Abortion

Henry Morgentaler, 1923-2013, R.I.P.

Carole Joffe

Henry Morgentaler, who died May 29 in Toronto at the age of 90, was the single most important figure in bringing legal abortion to Canada.

“The image I had … if there was a person drowning in the lake, and you were there, able to help that person just by extending your hand, everyone would do that, right? … [even] if it was, say, forbidden … I told myself, ‘Well, it would be a normal human gesture on my part to help.’”

These are the words of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, explaining to me, some years ago when I interviewed him, why he had decided to offer illegal abortions in Canada, starting in 1968. Morgentaler, who died May 29 in Toronto at the age of 90, was the single most important figure in bringing legal abortion to Canada.

Morgentaler’s chosen path as a full-time crusader for abortion rights was particularly intriguing to me. Through my research of the pre-Roe era, I had become fascinated by the willingness of some doctors of that time to risk both their medical licenses and jail time to provide illegal abortions. Morgentaler, it seemed to me, had more reasons than most to choose a quiet life, away from controversy and, especially, away from the threat of imprisonment.

Henry Morgentaler was born in the Polish town of Lodz in 1923. There, he was frequently subjected to beatings by anti-Semitic youth. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, his father, a labor leader, was sent to a detention camp, where he was tortured and murdered. Shortly thereafter, Morgantaler, his mother, sister, and brother were sent to concentration camps. Only he and his brother survived, after five years in Dachau and Auschwitz. After his release, he studied medicine in Belgium and completed his medical education in Canada, to which he emigrated in 1950.

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Settling in Montreal, he started a family medicine practice, and also became politically involved in the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal. A militant secularist—“socialism was the religion of our family,” he told me—the movement attracted him because of its focus on science and reason. He quickly became a leader in the Humanist movement, which is how he first encountered the abortion issue as it was on that movement’s agenda. He began to speak widely on the need for abortion reform, including a presentation before the Canadian parliament.

Morgentaler’s high visibility on the abortion issue immediately brought him a stream of requests from all over Canada from pregnant women seeking abortions. Initially he refused all such requests. But several events—including a drying up of the pool of reliable providers of illegal abortion to whom he could refer patients, the death of a beloved patient from an incompetently performed abortion by her boyfriend, and a growing sense of his own hypocrisy—led him to change his mind. The final straw was a challenge from a nurse in the hospital where he worked: “’Dr. Morgentaler, you talk so much about it, why don’t you do it?’ She had chutzpah!” he said. “I was taken aback. She was right. … Where was the integrity?”

Morgentaler then proceeded to openly perform abortions in his Montreal office, a step which soon overwhelmed the rest of his family practice. He became known to the Clergy Consultation Service in the United States, which referred women to reliable abortion providers in the pre-Roe years, and thousands of American women came to Canada for his care.

Morgentaler was arrested three times for his abortion practice by Canadian authorities. One of the most interesting, and moving, aspects of his remarkable saga as an abortion crusader is that he was each time acquitted by a French Canadian jury. As he pointed out to me, the differences between the jury members and him were considerable. The jurors were Canadian-born Catholics, while he was a European Jew and an outspoken atheist. There were social class differences as well between him, a physician, and the largely working-class jury. As he said, “They had nothing in common with me except our common humanity.” The jurors were apparently moved by the testimony of social service agency representatives who testified to his sliding-scale fees, his excellent care, and his overall decent treatment of patients.

The Canadian government nonetheless managed to get a reversal of one of these acquittals, and Morgentaler received a prison sentence. In prison, he continued his political activity—and his willingness to confront authority—advocating for better medical treatment for prisoners, better visiting hours, and better nutrition. He suffered a heart attack in prison and spent part of his sentence in a hospital.

In a huge victory for Canadian women, and an extraordinary moment of personal vindication for him, in January 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada invalidated the abortion law under which Morgentaler had been convicted, in a case bearing his name. Morgentaler spent the next 20 years establishing clinics all over Canada, and training numerous providers. Canada has not seen the level of violence against abortion providers that the United States has seen (indeed, the worst attacks on Canadian providers were committed by an American, James Kopp) but Morgentaler was threatened numerous times, and his flagship Toronto clinic was firebombed. For the rest of his life, he remained a highly polarizing figure in Canadian society, revered by the abortion rights movement, and despised by abortion opponents.

In our interview, the question I most wanted Dr. Morgentaler to answer was how, after spending five years in concentration camps, he could contemplate taking action that might again lead to a loss of freedom (and indeed did). His reply: “There was the desire to do something positive with my life, since this life could have been snuffed out. … [I could] try to build a society where children will be loved, and desired, and cared for, and therefore would grow up to be loving, caring persons, who will not build concentration camps.”