“Every mother a willing mother, every child a wanted child.”
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, quite possibly the most controversial public figure in Canada, died of a heart attack on May 29 at the age of 90. Morgentaler was a survivor of the Holocaust, a pioneer of the abortion-rights movement, and a founder and long-time president of the Humanist Association of Canada. Even more than with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canadians either loved him or hated him. Such strong feelings were evoked by Morgentaler’s unflagging commitment to make abortions safe, legal, and accessible in Canada. His battle to change Canada’s restrictive abortion laws went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the abortion provisions in the Criminal Code being struck down.
After surviving Dachau concentration camp, Morgentaler concluded that being an unwanted child could elicit feelings of rage, which he thought was a motivating factor in Hitler’s mad quest to exterminate the Jews. To Morgentaler, the termination of unwanted pregnancies was both rational and compassionate. He also felt driven to do something meaningful with his life. “The fact that I could have been a spot of dust 50 years ago but I survived made me understand that I could never give up, that I had a responsibility to my fellow human beings to accomplish something important,” he said in an interview in 1993.
Of course, not everyone saw things that way. His detractors considered him as wicked as the Nazis who killed his family for the approximately 80,000 abortions that he estimated he personally performed. Morgentaler’s perseverance despite the heavy personal and monetary price he paid was strongly motivated by his humanist beliefs. In fact, Henry Morgentaler was also a very prominent figure in the development of the humanist movement in Canada.
Heniek (later Henry) Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland, on March 19, 1923. His father, a trade union leader, was murdered by the Nazis in 1939, his sister died in the Lodz ghetto, and his mother at Auschwitz in 1944. Morgentaler and his brother spent time at a labour camp in Dachau and were liberated at the end of the war in 1945. He studied medicine in Germany and Belgium before marrying his childhood sweetheart Chava (Eva) Goldfarb and immigrating to Montreal (Quebec) Canada in 1950. Morgentaler obtained a medical degree in 1953 from the Université de Montréal and went into private practice as a general practitioner. He also joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal, becoming president in 1964. The Humanist Association of Canada (now Humanist Canada) was formed in 1968 largely through his efforts. In 1967, Morgentaler appeared on behalf of the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal and the Toronto and Victoria Associations before the Canadian government’s Commons Health and Welfare Committee, where he urged that Canada’s restrictive abortion law be repealed.
The publicity brought desperate women seeking abortions to Morgentaler’s medical practice. At first, he turned them away. Performing illegal abortions could cost him everything he had worked for. He could lose his license, his practice, his reputation, and his source of income. But he had also seen women whose illegal abortions had nearly cost them their lives and knew from other doctors and newspaper reports about women dying from illegal abortions conducted by incompetent practitioners. He decided to embark on a course of civil disobedience in defiance of the provisions dealing with abortion in the criminal code of Canada. The law, Morgentaler said, was “barbarous, cruel, and unjust.” In 1969, he notified his patients that he was giving up his practice. He did just that in 1970, and opened his first free-standing abortion clinic in Montreal. On June 1, 1970, he was arrested and charged with two counts of performing an illegal abortion. In 1973, a jury acquitted him. Immediately after his acquittal in 1973, Morgentaler published his findings, based on over 5000 cases, on the vacuum suction method, which he had introduced into Canada, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. His complication rate was extremely low compared to those in general hospitals.
In 1974, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the jury acquittal, and Morgentaler was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He served 10 months and was released after suffering a heart attack. In 1976, Canadian federal law was changed so that an appeal court could no longer overturn an acquittal by a jury and apply a conviction, instead a new trial would have to be ordered. This is known as the Morgentaler Amendment. In 1976, a second jury trial in Quebec on the 1970 charges resulted in another acquittal. The Quebec government, now led by the separatist Parti Québecois, announced that the federal abortion law was unenforceable.
In 1983, Morgentaler opened clinics in Winnipeg (Manitoba) and Toronto (Ontario). In Manitoba, he was charged with conspiring to procure miscarriages but the charges were dropped. He was also arrested in Ontario, but a Toronto jury acquitted him in 1984. The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and ordered a new trial. Morgentaler appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down the abortion provision in the Criminal Code on the grounds that it violated a woman’s right to security of the person. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to again introduce a restrictive abortion law (Bill C-43) that passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the Senate by a tie vote. Canada has been without a law on abortion since 1988. Morgentaler continued to establish abortion clinics across Canada.
Morgentaler paid a high price for his single-mindedness. His marriage to Eva ended in divorce in 1975, as did his second marriage to Carmen Wernli. (He is survived by his third wife, Arlene Leibovitch.) He racked up huge legal fees, was once attacked by a man with garden shears, was roughed up by a mob, and saw his Toronto clinic firebombed and burn to the ground (1992). After several abortion providers in Canada and the USA were shot, he wore bulletproof vests and installed bulletproof windows in his home. When Morgentaler was honoured with the Order of Canada in 2008, some previous recipients resigned from the Order in protest.
Nevertheless, he persevered, both in his crusade to make abortion accessible to every Canadian woman and in his promotion of humanism. It is while we both served on the Board of the Humanist Association of Canada in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I had the privilege of getting to know Henry personally. Morris Manning, the lawyer who represented him in the landmark Supreme Court case, said that Morgentaler’s humanist philosophy helped him to surmount trials few others could have endured. “Henry Morgentaler is the quintessential example of a person with compassion, intelligence, and courage who sought to help people and was at various times put through the criminal justice system in ways that very few people are put through the system.”
Henry Morgentaler was a man who had the courage of his convictions. R.I.P., Henry, and thank you.
Population Institute Canada