Each year after Henry Morgentaler won his historic Supreme Court of Canada victory of the abortion law in 1988, a private party was held, amid strict secrecy, to commemorate that day.
A list of invitees drawn up by Dr. Morgentaler and his wife, Arlene Leibovitch, was a Who’s Who of feminist movement leaders, political allies, abortion doctors and clinic staff who had played a key role in the pro-choice cause.
Throughout dinner, one after another of these activists and devotees of the cause would take the microphone. Lawyers told colourful anecdotes about Dr. Morgentaler’s mulish refusal to be muzzled or take direction. Doctors and nurses attested to his devotion to patients and his adamant refusal to be cowed by even the most confrontational opponents.
The leaders of feminist, pro-choice groups often gave the most intriguing speeches. Their sharp-edged recollections mellowed by the passage of time, powerhouses such as Norma Scarborough, Judy Rebick, June Callwood, Cherie MacDonald and Carolyn Egan told tales of fierce strategy debates with Dr. Morgentaler – a male physician with an autocratic bent who had, because of historical happenstance and his uniquely driven personality, become an essential ally.
While these women had chafed at seeing Dr. Morgentaler become the public face of a cause integral to feminism, they recognized his remarkable ability to coalesce support and remain unbending under pressure. Willingly, they had submerged their role in order to present a united front.
Their stories of clashes were also invariably laced with undisguised love for a man who had put his life and liberty on the line, time after time, in a display of outspoken, insistent, civil disobedience rarely before seen in Canadian social discourse.
The most visible face of Dr. Morgentaler’s legacy will always be his Supreme Court triumph. Yet, on a more abstract plane, he showed the country that a single, fiercely articulate, obsessively determined, media-savvy individual can create a tidal surge of change.
Morris Manning, Dr. Morgentaler’s lawyer, looks back on the abortion battle as a historic confluence of one person with a cause whose time had come.
“Henry Morgentaler was the quintessential example of the power of one,” Mr. Manning said Wednesday. “That one person showed the world with moral courage and commitment that oppressive laws, and those who apply them, can be changed.”
However, Dr. Morgentaler and the women’s movement required one additional ingredient before their goals could be achieved – a legal vehicle that could enable them to override the reluctance of political leaders to accommodate abortion by choice.
It arrived in 1982 in the form of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which proclaimed the fundamental rights of the individual as being paramount to the collective will as expressed through political decision-making.
With the Charter at the forefront of their strategy, Dr. Morgentaler and his allies set about rewriting entire chapters of the book of civic engagement. In open defiance of the law, they opened an abortion clinic in supposedly staid, downtown Toronto. They orchestrated mass demonstrations, crafted sophisticated legal arguments, and courted public opinion through the management of a masterful media strategy.
The 1988 Morgentaler judgment was a monumental precedent, not just in reforming the abortion law, but in announcing to the country that judges would not shy away from using the Charter as a mighty weapon against injustice to the individual.
“Quite apart from the abortion issue, Dr. Morgentaler will be remembered as a person who took on the legal system and forced it to be fair,” Mr. Manning said. “He will also be remembered as a person who took on the medical establishment and forced them to remember what the Hippocratic Oath was really about.”
Maria Corsillo, long-time director of a Toronto abortion clinic and wife of Dr. Robert Scott – who fought the legal battle alongside Dr Morgentaler – said the abortion battle underlined that the patient-doctor relationship is an equal partnership.
“Dr. Morgentaler’s fight for abortion rights for women changed the way patients see themselves,” she said. “Once that started to happen, the democratization of health care was almost inevitable.”
At an even deeper level, Dr. Morgentaler’s fight took on entrenched cultural norms, Ms. Corsillo said: “What is a good doctor? What is a good woman? What is a good mother? He was completely unafraid to challenge those things. Anyone who wants to change the world needs to be that fearless. Dr. Morgentaler’s life is a blueprint for challenging and changing laws.”
For his part, Dr. Morgentaler loved his role as the champion of women. A survivor of the Holocaust, he was almost pathologically opposed to authority and officialdom. It made him see red that clerics and male politicians felt they had the right to tell women what they could do with their bodies.
True to his humanist roots, Dr. Morgentaler’s guiding, intellectual philosophy was a seamless composite of diverse elements. Beyond his belief in individual autonomy, he viewed criminals as the inevitable result of end of a society that forces children upon parents who are too young, too unprepared or simply incapable of providing loving relationships.
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