Through his courage, Henry Morgentaler brought abortions out of the back alleys of this country and into the safer precincts of hospitals and medical clinics.
What much of this country takes for granted today – the right of women to control their own bodies – was unthinkable in the late 1960s when he entered onto the scene. He was, as he hoped to be, a “mover of history.” He changed Canada for the better.
Individuals matter. A social movement coalesced around Dr. Morgentaler because he was willing to put his medical career (he started out as a general practitioner), his name and his freedom at risk. More than his freedom. As late as 1992, his storefront clinic on Harbord Street in Toronto was firebombed.
Canada was a vastly different place when he entered on the scene, more religious, more homogeneous, and without a constitutional bill of rights with which to challenge the power of the state. Dr. Morgentaler spoke at parliamentary committees, in medical journals, at universities, in courtrooms, in the news media. He wrote to the prime minister. On his tax form, he listed abortions as the source of his income when providing abortions was illegal.
He made sure that the authorities were aware of what he was doing. At first, he advocated for abortion on request while performing abortions in secret. But in 1973, he announced at the University of Toronto that he had performed more than 5,000 abortions. That same year, he wrote an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal describing his abortion technique. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail in Quebec. He was later charged in Ontario.
It was another individual, Pierre Trudeau, who brought Canada a national rights charter in 1982, which set the stage for the 1988 Supreme Court ruling that bears Dr. Morgentaler’s name. It said that the restrictions on abortion were arbitrary and unfair, and that the process for obtaining a legal one undermined the law’s stated purposes of protecting the life and health of women. Dr. Morgentaler went on to set up clinics in several provinces.
And today, while nothing in the 1988 Supreme Court ruling bars a government from passing an abortion law, no government dares try.
He was a very Canadian figure – a Holocaust survivor who found in Canada the freedom to become something new. In a country of immigrants, he was the outsider who helped change the way things were done. Those willing to challenge the status quo, who compel public attention, usually are divisive figures, and he was. Many who offer such a challenge or who enter public realms fade quickly away. He is still very much with us.
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