Canada's greatest abortion rights activist Henry Morgentaler is also a physician and an Auschwitz survivor. Hailed by his supporters as a hero and champion of women's rights, reviled by his enemies as a murderer and a show boater, Dr. Morgentaler has pursued what he believes in even at the risk of his health, liberty, and life.
Morgentaler was born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland. He adored his father Josef, a socialist labour activist, but felt rejected and unloved by his mother Golda, especially after his younger brother was born. Morgentaler's childhood wasn't easy: his father was arrested and killed by the Gestapo for his activism, while young Henry endured anti-semitic taunts and, in 1944, was shipped to Auschwitz with his mother and older brother. The notorious Josef Mengele scrutinized the new arrivals on the train plaform, allowing Henry and his brother to live but sending their mother off to the gas chambers. Their sister, living in the Warsaw ghetto, died in Treblinka. Henry survived the war, but only just, emerging from Auschwitz skeletal and toothless.
Henry accepted a United Nations scholarship offered to Jewish survivors which allowed him to attend a year of medical school at a German university. He declined going to Israel, which he feared would become just another ghetto for Jews; instead he married a woman he had known from childhood, Chava, and moved to Brussels to continue his studies. In 1950, with the help of a cousin, the couple settled in Montreal. Henry again eschewed the "ghetto" of the Jewish General Hospital, and became a general practitioner. He joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal, an influential group that championed rationality and rejected religion.
Though he had settled into a comfortable and prosperous life as a doctor, he was haunted by the terrible harms that women suffered from their attempts to cause abortion, which was illegal. In 1967, on behalf of the Humanist Fellowship, he testified before the Federal Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, which was considering changes to the criminal code, that pregnant women had the right to safe abortion. Thus began a long interaction with the Canadian judicial system.
His testimony had made him famous, and women flocked to his office begging for abortions. At first he refused to perform the illegal act, but he felt helpless and hypocritical, so in 1968 performed an abortion for the daughter of a friend. In 1969 the Canadian parliament decriminalized contraception and some abortions - if performed in a hospital and with the approval of a therapeutic abortion commmittee made up of the three doctors. That same year Morgentaler quit his family practice to concentrate on performing abortions, though not legal ones: he did his in a private clinic, not a hospital, and he did not gain the approval of a committee. For this he was first arrested in 1970 and subsequently many times over the next two decades.
In 1973 he announced that he had performed over 5000 illegal abortions and even did one on camera for W5, a Canadian investigative TV program. He finally came before the court in 1973 on a number of charges, but was acquitted by a jury of eleven men and one woman. The verdict was overturned by five Roman Catholic judges on the Quebec Court of Appeal; two more juries acquitted him, and in 1975 the so-called Morgentaler Amendment, which specified that a jury verdict could not be overturned on appeal, was passed. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 1975 the appeal was dismissed; Morgentaler surrendered himself to custody.
Morgentaler spent ten months in jail. Feminists championed his cause and wrote damning letters of protest to various government officials; some supporters have charged that he never would have been sent to jail if he hadn't been Jewish. Morgentaler suffered a mild heart attack during his imprisonment, and has said that he was more tormented and humiliated in that prison, where he was stripped naked and kept in solitary confinement, than he had been even in a concentration camp.
To review abortion law, in 1975 the federal government struck the Committee on the Operation of the Abortion Law (led by Robin Badgley, hence often referred to as the Badgley Committee). In 1976 the Parti Québécois announced it would no longer enforce Quebec's abortion law; in 1977 the Badgley Committee's report concluded that the process for obtaining abortion was inequitable.
This finding vindicated Morgentaler, who began opening free-standing abortion clinics in Canada, first in Winnipeg, then in Toronto, then in other major Canadian cities. Because they did not follow the prescribed procedures the clinics were frequently raided by the police and the doctors working there charged; the clinics were heavily picketed and even fire bombed. Court cases and anti-choice harrassment continued, but finally in 1988 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled 5-2 in favour of Morgentaler, stating in their decision (the "Morgentaler decision") that the requirements around abortion were arbitrary and demeaning, and stood in the way of women who needed timely access to a routine medical procedure. The law was repealed and has not been replaced.
Today Morgentaler, over 80 years old, continues his crusade to make abortion accessible to all Canadian women. Some provinces - like Ontario, where I live - fund abortions in private clinics ("Morgentaler clinics") and hospitals; other have refused to fund clinic abortions or otherwise erected barriers to access, which Morgentaler continues to fight. He has opened clinics in many major Canadian cities and has plans to open more - in the Maritimes, in the Arctic - and he works tirelessly to ensure that abortions performed in these clinics are paid for by medicare. He and his allies have fought to allow women to gain access to those clinics without being harassed by anti-choice protestors. One of his clinics not far from my home here in Toronto was destroyed by a bomb one night, though thankfully no one was killed. Morgentaler is a regular target of death threats, but has said he finds his bulletproof vest too cumbersome to wear.
Morgantaler is "a difficult hero", as Catherine Dunphy aptly puts it in the subtitle of her biography of him. He is driven by survivor guilt to do something to better the world, and he longs for the mother-love he never could believe in when he had it. He loves women, and his charm is legendary; he has had intimate relationships with many women and been married three times (his third wife is thirty years his junior); he has four children. He enjoys being in the spotlight and celebrates his successes, but he hasn't worked simply for himself; women who choose abortion in Canada today have Morgentaler to thank for even having this choice.
In 2008 Dr Morgentaler received the Order of Canada.
The Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL, www.caral.ca) has an excellent website on the abortion in Canada and Morgentaler's many legal battles. See also www.theglobeandmail.com/series/morgentaler/