A deafening silence hung over Ottawa on Wednesday, a vacuum that should have been filled with words of praise – or at least of acknowledgment. The death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler had just been announced, and the news ricocheted across the country. Provincial politicians and members of the opposition stepped in with public pronouncements, acknowledging the way he changed history and improved Canadian women’s lives for the past four decades.
But from the country’s ruling elite … nothing. It’s customary to publicly mark the death of important Canadians, but federal Conservative ministers stood with hands in pockets, whistling, distracted by a shiny nickel on the ground or something equally important. Rona Ambrose, the Minister for Status of Women, startled at lunch with the news of Dr. Morgentaler’s death, managed this masterpiece of ambiguity: “Obviously, he was a big figure in Canadian history and made a huge impact on the nation.”
The Prime Minister found time on his Twitter account to acknowledge Canada’s first Coptic bishop (hey, congratulations from me, too) but not the death of a Holocaust survivor, member of the Order of Canada and pioneering abortion provider. I know, it’s a crazy busy time in Ottawa.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Conservatives lost their courage in the laundry. The much-vaunted “base” might have been offended by any acknowledgment of an issue that curdles them from within. Dr. Morgentaler – or “that murderer,” as a jolly soul tweeted at me in the hours after his death – was a divisive figure. To judge by the comments on The Globe’s website alone, he was either a saint or a “coward who got wealthy killing babies.” That’s a chasm Evel Knievel would have trouble crossing.
I’m not sure why we have to imagine him existing at those two extremes, when all human beings – even the most gifted and driven – fall somewhere in between. The coverage of Dr. Morgentaler’s death revealed a particularly distressing belief: that men and women who achieve great things are expected to be morally pure, with stainless characters to match their achievements. In a secular world, there’s a quaint longing for saintliness.
The title of Catherine Dunphy’s excellent 1996 biography says it all: Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. The man who emerges in its pages is peevish, arrogant, authoritarian. He chases skirt with the energy of Leonardo DiCaprio, saying at one point that he finally has everything he wants: a house, a wife, a mistress. He falls out with his brother and daughter, becomes depressed, feels sorry for himself.
In other words, he was human. Not a saint, but an extraordinary man who was willing to go to jail for what he believed in, took all patients no matter what they could pay, never let a little bombing get him down and refused to wear his bullet-proof vest when the good and powerful of Toronto publicly feted him on his 70th birthday.
He gave as good as he got: When his enemies called him murderer, he shot back, with contempt: fetus fetishists, ayatollahs, zealots.
Yes, along the way, Dr. Morgentaler made money by providing a desperately needed service for desperate women, and this gave him nice houses and nice vacations. Apparently, that’s a bad thing. Of all the criticisms of him, this seems the most illogical: Surely if you’re an opponent of abortion, it’s the practice itself that is immoral, not whether the practitioner lives in a hovel or a mansion with a swimming pool.
He inspired both love and exasperation in the many women who fought by his side for decades – and whose names, unfairly, will be forgotten long before his. It became impossible, as he went to trial over and over and the country raged over abortion, to separate the man from the mission. As Ms. Dunphy wrote: “He began to gloss over his personal commitment to the cause – perhaps because he had become the cause.”
I’m not sure how many towering historical figures would pass the smell test if we spent much time sniffing around their offices or bedroom doors. Should we not use iPads because Steve Jobs was often a jerk? Or give up on reading Bleak House because Charles Dickens was a leading contender for Bad Husband of the Year, saving all his sympathy for his characters and none for his family? Henry Morgentaler fell short of some strange, imagined ideal – so what?
Instead, we should thank him for helping Canada become that rare place where women have safe and painless access to abortion should they need it. A place where women don’t have to give birth to unwanted babies over toilets because they can’t afford the alternative, as recently happened in China.
In April, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a remarkable speech at a Planned Parenthood gathering, noting that 42 states in his country are trying to eliminate or severely restrict access to abortion, four decades after the right to choose should have been firmly entrenched. “When you read about some of these laws, you want to check the calendar,” he said. “You want to make sure you’re still living in 2013.”
In this country, we know what year it is, and we have a whole lot of people to thank for that. One of them died this week, after a long, meaningful, complicated life.