To his enemies he was a mass murderer, but to many he was the man who shed light on back-street abortions and put women’s health and choice on the front pages of newspapers, TV screens and radio airwaves.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who helped overturn Canada’s abortion law 25 years ago, died Wednesday at his Toronto home. He was 90.
In 1967 Morgentaler, then a family practitioner, emerged in Quebec as an advocate for the right of Canadian women to have abortion on demand, at a time when attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life in prison.
The issue became a polarizing one in Canada: On one side the growing women’s liberation movement pushed for the right to choose, while the other was made up of those who equated abortion with murder.
In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2004, the abortion rights crusader said his five-year stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau prepared him for his showdown with Canada’s legal system.
“I had decided to break the law in order to help women — a disadvantaged class of people who were being unjustly treated and exposed to terrible danger,” said the slight man from behind a desk surrounded by family photos in his Toronto clinic. He was 81 at the time.
“The fact that it was the law didn’t play with me because in my mind laws can be wrong,” he said remembering his boyhood when simply being a Jew was reason enough to be imprisoned.
Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland and came to Canada after the Second World War. He completed his medical studies at the Universite de Montreal and interned at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
It was there that he happened upon a ward that made him realize the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies. It changed his life as well as the future rights of Canadian women.
“The Royal Victoria Hospital — and many other Montreal hospitals — had a whole ward specially designed for women who had bad abortions, and many of these women would die. Many would be injured to the point where they couldn’t have any more children.
“It was a terrible situation.”
In 1967, Morgentaler spoke before a government committee considering changes to the abortion law.
He told of the dying and sick women he’d seen and said publicly that it was a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy.
After his speech, desperate women approached him for abortions, but as it was still an illegal procedure, he turned them away.
It was only after much soul-searching, that Morgentaler — with the hopes of eventually changing the law — started performing illegal abortions to women who requested his help.
“I felt, as a humanist and as a doctor, that I had a moral duty to help these women,” he told The Canadian Press.
In 1969, the federal government amended the law to make abortion legal under restricted conditions: A hospital committee would decide whether the continuation of the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life or health.
Soon Morgentaler opened his first clinic in Montreal.
By 1973, the clinic had been raided several times by police and charges laid. Later that year a Quebec jury acquitted Morgentaler but the Quebec Court of Appeal threw out the verdict. After the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, Morgentaler began serving an 18-month sentence.
Canadians on both sides took action: Those supporting abortion on demand held rallies calling for Morgentaler’s release while those who opposed abortion petitioned Ottawa.
Even in jail Morgentaler was defiant; he threw his boxer shorts in the face of a prison guard who told him to strip after being moved to an isolated room. The guard punched and kicked the doctor to the ground.
Morgentaler was released after serving 10 months.
In 1976, the newly elected Parti Quebecois government decided not to proceed with the charges against Morgentaler and doctors providing abortions in Quebec would not be prosecuted.
Morgentaler opened more clinics across the country.
More rallies, protests and legal battles followed until Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional. Morgentaler was one of the key players in the case.
In 1990, the government tried to bring back the criminal control over abortion but the bill was narrowly defeated.
Morgentaler’s critics paint a very different picture, far from a benevolent advocate of women’s rights.
Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women Canada, is a prolifer and a longtime Morgentaler adversary.
She believes that if abortion is an assertion of women’s rights, why aren’t more forthcoming about abortions they have had?
“Morgentaler was an opportunist,” Landolt said in an interview in 2004. “The only thing he could do was abortions and that, with the help of the media, he turned it around to be a great crusade.”
“But he was really out for Morgentaler and money.”
As part of REAL Women and legal counsel for the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition, Landolt’s barbs are verbal. But other critics have been more than vocal about their opposition to abortion.
At the opening of Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic in 1983, a man lunged at him with garden shears. That and the 1993 bombing of the clinic left Morgentaler shaken but unharmed.
Political commentator and feminist Judy Rebick was walking beside Morgentaler when the man came at the doctor. Without hesitation, Rebick chased the man to his yard nearby.
But she remembers Morgentaler as the hero.
“I think Morgentaler is a hero because he risked his life many times for the struggle. The incident you describe was the one time I risked mine,” she said in early 2008.
The shootings of other doctors in Canada in the 1990’s and the murder of an abortion provider in the United States forced Morgentaler to acknowledge he was a target. He started wearing a bullet-proof vest.
But he soon abandoned the vest, convincing himself he was invulnerable.
“Maybe it’s by accident it succeeded,” he said in 2004. “Because it was possible that some religious fanatic would come up and pump a few bullets.”
Even while sitting at a chess board, Morgentaler showed flashes of the stubborness that fuelled his famous fight against what he considered an injustice.
A champion chess player in his native Poland, he would play chess for hours on end, even well into his 70s, never quit, and would invariably insist on playing a few more games when younger opponents wanted to go home.
Dan Bigras, his former stepson and a prominent Quebec singer, told Montreal’s 98.5 FM radio station he learned some life lessons watching how Morgentaler fought his battles with stoicism, never wallowing in sorrow because he was confident in his cause.
“He’d been in Nazi death camps,” Bigras, who reminisced about the three years that the abortion-rights crusader was his mother’s partner, said Wednesday. “He escaped with his brother during a bombing. So, if he managed to keep his head in a concentration camp and escape despite the automatic death sentence that would have meant, I don’t think a prison sentence here would have scared him too much.”
Morgentaler’s legal battles continued when he opened a clinics in Nova Scotia in 1989 and again in 1994, when he opened a clinic for the women in New Brunswick as these provinces passed legislation prohibiting abortions outside of hospitals. By 1995, provincial and federal rulings forced both provinces to allow private clinics.
Morgentaler closed his Halifax abortion clinic in 2003, 13 years after it opened. He said women were able to get appropriate care at Halifax’s Victoria General Hospital, where the procedure would be covered under provincial health insurance at the hospital.
Prolifers saw the closure as a victory.
In 2004, an honorary-degrees committee at Western University agreed to confer the degree on Morgentaler.
Those against the degree circulated a petition to demand the committee’s reversal, garnering 12,000 signatures. An anonymous donor withdrew a promise of a $2 million bequest to the university when it announced that Morgentaler was to be honoured.
Morgentaler said that all the fuss over the honour was proof that some people still opposed the rights of women.
In 2008, Morgentaler received the Order of Canada, prompting an immediate backlash from abortion opponents.
Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, asked that he be removed from the order to protest Morgentaler’s appointment.
Turcotte’s resignation was officially accepted by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean later that year. He was among several abortion opponents who resigned from the order.
The controversy surrounding Morgentaler made him a celebrity as his story yielded countless media profiles and a few television movies.
Morgentaler trained more than 100 doctors to perform abortions and opened 20 clinics across the country.
There are no longer hordes of protesters outside his clinics.
“It’s because of the debate people have changed their minds. Now they have the additional knowledge and experience that women no longer die as a result of abortions,” Morgentaler said in the earlier interview.
“We’ve come to a situation where women accept (abortion on demand) as part of their rights.”