Friday, 31 May 2013

Henry Morgentaler: Canadian Abortion Rights Pioneer
Henry Morgentaler (right) with NDP leader Jack Layton (left), 2005,
Wikimedia Commons
Henry Morgentaler died this week at the age of 90. Morgentaler was a hero of Canada’s abortion rights movement. A medical doctor, he began giving safe, clean and relatively inexpensive abortions in his office in Montreal in the late 1960s, at a time when all abortions were illegal. He opened abortion clinics in Montreal, Toronto and elsewhere when abortions became legal but only under very restricted conditions: women had to go before a board of three doctors (usually all men, since there were very few women doctors in those days). He underwent numerous legal battles to enlarge women’s rights to abortion on demand, without the humiliation of going before three doctors for approval. Three juries in the province of Quebec refused to convict him of illegally providing abortions. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada outlawed all restrictions on abortions, although abortions are still provincially regulated and subject to doctors’ codes of ethics. During this long battle, Morgentaler even spent a brief stint in jail.
I remember well what it meant for women to have no rights whatsoever to abortion. I was an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal from 1965 to 1969.  From 1965 to 1967 I lived in McGill’s extremely strict women’s residence, Royal Victoria College, where there were curfews, no men were allowed in your room, and the woman in charge of us all was called the “warden.”  In my first year there, one of the girls down the hall from me was caught by police in a raid, in the middle of her abortion. The warden expelled her from the residence, which meant she was expelled from the university too, and her friends were told not to come back the next year.
Henry Morgentaler during a December 1983 freedom of
choice rally in Ottawa
Source: Vancouver Sun,

Later that year another girl I knew told me she was pregnant. I tried to help her by calling the local Unitarian Minister for information: he gave me Dr. Morgentaler’s name, which I passed on, but my friend didn’t follow up. Eventually she went for a back street abortion.
In 1968 another girl I knew needed an abortion. I went with her in a taxi to an address she had been given: she went into the house but came right back out again, saying the place was filthy. Then, fortunately, someone reminded me of Morgentaler again. My friend went to him instead: the price was $300, his clinic was clean and safe, and there was a nurse there to help. My friend came back with an expression of great relief on her face and nothing but praise for Morgentaler and his nurse.
I mention the price because Morgentaler was a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz who arrived in Canada in 1950. Occasionally I’ve heard or read accusations about how his clinics were dirty (not true) or about how he was in the abortion business to make money. These are common stereotypes about Jews, and it’s a shame to see the debate about abortion sullied by these untrue accusations.
I’m not happy that women still have to have abortions. I think abortion is a social tragedy, and I would much rather live in a world in which no woman or girl ever had to have an abortion.  Among other things, the more rights women have, and the more access both males and females have to sex education and birth control, the fewer unwanted pregnancies—hence the fewer demands for abortion. But we certainly don’t live yet in a world where all these conditions obtain, and even if we did, women are always subject to coerced sexual relations. Until we do, women need the right to abortion on demand.
 So I, for one, am extremely grateful not only for the clean, safe and relatively inexpensive abortion services Henry Morgentaler provided, but also for his willingness to engage in legal battles and even go to jail on behalf of women’s right to abortion. I know he didn’t do this alone: it took decades of feminist activity to obtain this right in Canada, and we are still in danger that it will be revoked. But I will always remember the relief my friend at McGill felt after her safe, clean, and compassionate treatment at Henry Morgentaler’s clinic in 1968.

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