Henry Morgentaler, 1923-2013
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Henry Morgentaler, 1923-2013

Front page, the Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988

Front page, the Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

Once upon a time, there was an unjust and harmful law. Someone raised his voice in opposition to this law—in fact, many people did—but ultimately words proved ineffective and the law remained in place.

However, since this was not, in fact, a fairy tale but actual life in Canada, someone was required to lead a life of civil disobedience, deliberately breaking that law and suffering the consequences. “The consequences,” in this case, included spending months in jail and a small fortune on legal fees, plus a stress-induced heart attack while incarcerated. Also required: taking the cause repeatedly to the Supreme Court. It was, by any standard, an exceptionally stressful and difficult life, and one that was undermined regularly by private citizens threatening violence and death.

Most people would not have committed themselves to this difficult course—not unreasonable, given everything we just listed. But most people are not Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who died Wednesday at the age of 90.

Morgentaler, a Holocaust survivor—he spent time at both Auschwitz and Dachau—came to Canada in 1950. He began practicing medicine in Montreal shortly thereafter, and opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. Morgentaler later explained that, although he was initially reticent to break the law, he came to believe that performing abortions was a moral necessity given the danger that women exposed themselves to by electing to have the procedure performed by people without medical training.

In between 1969 and 1976 Quebec tried Morgentaler three times for performing illegal abortions outside of hospitals. Juries acquitted him at the trial level each time, accepting his argument that it was necessary for him, as a doctor, to treat those women who came to him in need. Morgentaler did, however, go to jail when the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned an acquittal. (Explicitly in response to this, Pierre Trudeau’s Parliament changed the Criminal Code to disallow appeals courts from overturning jury acquittals.) His first challenge of the abortion restrictions in the Criminal Code at the Supreme Court level in 1976 failed.

It didn’t stop him.

Morgentaler opened clinics in Winnipeg and Toronto in 1983; the Toronto clinic eventually became the centre of the case that would change abortion law in Canada. This time, Morgentaler’s challenge of abortion laws, based on the then-still-new Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was successful. Abortion was decriminalized in Canada and it has remained so ever since. Morgentaler went back to the Supreme Court in 1993 and successfully prevented the provinces from regulating abortion out of existence.

All of this was not without cost. Morgentaler received innumerable death threats. (He famously kept the mailed ones in thick stacks.) Anti-abortion activists firebombed his clinic on Harbord Street twice, in 1983 and 1992; the second attempt successfully burned down the clinic. Morgentaler built another to replace it. He wore a bulletproof vest to work and installed bulletproof glass in his home, and kept on going until he retired from active practice in 2006. Even then he continued to organize and assist with the pro-choice movement in Canada.

Henry Morgentaler, more than anybody else, changed public views on abortion in this country. He made it his life’s work to ensure that women in Canada would have choice, and that we understood that abortion was that—a question about the choices women had available to them. He would be the first to say that he was hardly solely responsible for this change, but someone had to be the tip of the spear-point and Morgentaler chose to take that on. It was for this reason, for his immense sacrifices for the public good, that Canada awarded Morgentaler the Order of Canada in 2010.

Morgentaler himself would at this point likely note that he leaves his work unfinished, as most people do. Late in his life he worked to organize new abortion clinics in the northern territories; Prince Edward Island to this day has no clinics of its own. The struggle for abortion rights in Canada continues. It will now continue without its greatest champion.