Henry Morgentaler, the family doctor who led the abortion movement in Canada, died of a heart attack at his Toronto home early Wednesday. He was 90.
Dr. Morgentaler, who was the focus of both reverence and hatred, was one of the key players in the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that declared the law prohibiting abortion unconstitutional. He is survived by his wife, Arlene, four children, several grandchildren and his extended family. Funeral arrangements are private.
Dr. Morgentaler had a complex relationship with women all his life. As a child, he felt his mother didn’t love him as much as his younger brother; as a doctor, he performed thousands of safe, but illegal, abortions on desperate women with unwanted pregnancies; as a social and political activist, he worked to repeal Canada’s draconian abortion law in order to give women control over their reproductive lives; as a medical administrator, he opened eight clinics across the country to try to give women equality of access to abortions; and, as a man, he was a consummate philanderer who married three times and conducted many extramarital affairs. “He was a man who loved women and couldn’t be monogamous,” Catherine Dunphy wrote in her 1998 book, Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero.
“My whole life,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2003, “I have been looking for the mother-love that I missed. That explains my many relationships with women. Deep down, with me, I was afraid they would leave me, or stop loving me. It was a psychological strategy to make sure there would always be a woman who loves me.” He died with the woman who loved him, his third wife, Arlene Leibovitz, by his side, as she had been for nearly 30 years.
A Holocaust survivor, whose defiance of authority was steeped in bitter experience, a humanist, an atheist and a lover of the spotlight, Dr. Morgentaler was revered by pro-abortion advocates and reviled by those who opposed them. In the last half-century, he was lauded, arrested, and jailed. His Toronto clinic was destroyed by arsonists, he was physically threatened and was awarded an honorary degree and the Order of Canada. Today, it is hard to say which changed more – him or the country that accepted him as a 26-year-old immigrant in 1950.
His mother died in Auschwitz and her murder was directly linked to his desire to help other women live the way they wished. “I knew I could not save my mother,” he told The Globe in 2003. “But I could save other mothers. It was an unconscious thought. It became almost like a command. If I help women to have babies at a time when they can give love and affection, they will not grow up to be rapists or murders. They will not build concentration camps.”
Jan. 28, 1988, the day the Supreme Court declared Canada’s long-standing abortion law unconstitutional, was the greatest day in Dr. Morgentaler’s life. For the next 20 years, on the anniversary of the ruling, he held a dinner for key supporters in the struggle. “It was a vindication of everything I believed in,” he said. “For the first time, it gave women the status of full human beings able to make decisions about their own lives.”
Perhaps the second greatest day in his life was Oct. 10, 2008. That was the day when Governor-General Michaëlle Jean pinned the Order of Canada on his chest in a ceremony at the Citadel in Quebec City, while protesters marched outside. His inclusion as a member, the lowest of three ranks, in our highest civilian order, had been hotly debated for years: One side denounced him as a murderer; the other praised him as a hero. Several members of the Order, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, returned their medals in protest against Dr. Morgentaler’s appointment.
“I am honoured to receive the Order of Canada today,” Dr. Morgentaler said in a brief statement after the ceremony. “Canada is one of the few places in the world where freedom of speech and choice prevail in a truly democratic fashion. I’m proud to have been given this opportunity, coming from a war-torn Europe, to realize my potential and my dream, to create a better and more humane society.”