Requiem for a great Canadian

Henry Morgentaler was a rare Canadian hero of democracy, justice and human rights.

On May 30, Canada lost one of its national heroes.

And the world lost a champion of democracy, justice and human rights.

At first glance some might look askance at the idea that an ‘abortion crusader’ who was ‘admired as much as he was reviled’ (as Canada’s national media variously described him) might embody the qualities of a democratic hero. But Henry Morgentaler was all that, and more. He was an all too rare model of integrity, idealism, and faith in an era where we are all too prone to accept without thinking the dictates of a society that is neither of our making, nor of our choosing. The 21st century has opened with cynicism and doubt. When we dream, they tend to be small and inconsequential dreams. When we act, they are small actions, full of hesitation and fear. When our leaders tell us something is impossible, we accept it; when our media tells us something is unrealistic, we believe it; when those around us tell us something is hopeless, we smother our dreams in self-centred consumption and narcissistic self-absorption.

The life of Henry Morgentaler offers a model and a vision of a better society and a greater form of humanity. He faced all these same challenges. But instead of bowing to reality, instead of accepting the impossible, instead of casting aside his hopes and dreams, he grit his teeth, pulled on his spectacles and strove forward. He is a man whose soul grew to meet the demands of a troubled age, and who shaped a better world from the messy raw materials he found at hand.

A momentous life

Morgentaler’s life is a story of struggle and triumph against evil and adversity. Born in Poland in 1923, his father was executed by the Nazis during World War II, and Morgentaler and his mother and siblings were sent to Nazi concentration camps. His mother and sister were killed in Nazi gas chambers and Morgentaler himself wound up in Auschwitz, which he barely survived (suffering badly from starvation and disease when it was finally liberated). After the war he studied medicine and in 1950 moved with his wife to Montreal where he began work as a general practitioner. Although offered more lucrative positions, he wanted to offer his services to all, even those who were not rich and wealthy. It was a sign of the nobility of soul which was just beginning to emerge.

It was in 1967 that he became an unlikely champion of the abortion cause. He spoke before a government committee that was reviewing abortion laws, and argued for women’s right to an abortion. His position was unique and controversial at the time – one of the few willing and daring enough to speak out in favour of liberal abortion laws – and almost immediately he was inundated with requests for abortions from women who heard about his position on the issue. Putting action to his words, he agreed to conduct as many as he could: acting with integrity even though it meant breaking the law. It was thus that his long battle for abortion rights began.

A lesson in integrity and greatness

Morgentaler’s greatness offers lessons to those of us who strive toward greatness in an age of small souls and petty dreams. His greatness stems from the following qualities.

First: he embraced, without hesitation, the call to build a better world. He recognized an injustice – women’s lack of access to safe abortions – which was one that he had the ability to change. As a doctor, he knew that although it might cost him his freedom and his life, to ignore the opportunity to help and reduce the suffering of others would be wrong. It is as simple as that. If we can help others, we must. The cost to ourselves, if we act, may be great. But the cost to our souls and to the quality and integrity of our society, if we do not act, would be greater.

Secondly: he acted with courage. Courage is not something any of us are born with, nor is it something that comes naturally. The natural thing to do when faced with threat and danger is to run. It is unnatural, in the extreme, to hold our ground against adversity. But the ability of some brave few of us to hold our ground in the defense of our dreams and in the vision of a better world is what has produced human civilization and those qualities we recognize as great. There are few such examples of greatness and nobility of soul in Canada. Henry Morgentaler is one.

A democratic struggle

Morgentaler’s eventual arrest and 10 months of imprisonment was essentially a showdown between the forces of popular democracy, and those of the Catholic elites who were struggling to maintain their disintegrating hold on a society that was determined to change. When Morgentaler was charged with violating the law by providing abortions, he was acquitted by a jury. The jury, consisting of average citizens, were providing their own indictment of the unjust restrictions on women’s right to abortion, by ruling that Morgentaler did nothing wrong by violating the law since the law itself was unjust.

The Quebec provincial government, faced with this refusal by a jury to indict the man, appealed to a judicial panel (comprised of five Roman Catholic judges), who overturned the jury’s decision and sentenced Morgentaler to prison. While in prison, he appealed, and another people’s jury overturned the judges’ decision to imprison him. This created a bit of a legal quandary: would the decision of the jury, or the judges, prevail? In the wake of loud and vocal protests for Morgentaler’s freedom, the Government of Canada had to pass a law stating that judges could not overturn the decision of a jury. Morgentaler was released, but immediately charged again by the Quebec provincial government. And, for the third time in a row, a people’s jury acquitted him.

The story is an inspiring model of democracy in action. It was a showdown between popular democracy (represented by the juries of average citizens) acting in support of the view of Canadians that abortion is not a crime, and on the other side lined up against them the old vested interests of the Roman Catholic elites (represented by the judges who tried to overturn the juries’ decisions). The outcome of this struggle not only eventually freed Morgentaler and reinforced the right to an abortion, but it strengthened and improved both the justice system and the democratic culture of this country.

But not without a price. Morgentaler stood strong against the most extreme intimidation, and even torture, on the part of a Canadian justice system that was determined to crush his challenge for women’s freedom. When the Catholic judges on the Court of Appeal overturned his acquittals and ordered him imprisoned, he was subjected to extreme persecution in the prison system: he is reported to have said his treatment there was even worse than what he had experienced in the Nazi concentration camps in his youth. Subjected to humiliation by the police, who made him strip naked and locked him in solitary confinement, the activist – in his fifties – even suffered a heart attack in prison. Yet he never wavered from his belief in the justice of the cause for which he was fighting.

And the fight for abortion rights was, fundamentally, a fight about equality in Canadian society. Morgentaler’s legal challenge to the existing abortion laws was that they were demeaning and discriminatory toward women and created barriers against women pursuing a medical operation that they wanted and should have the right to have. At the time, women had to appeal to a committee of doctors for the right to have an abortion. As a result, many women were either rejected or too intimidated to apply, and instead obtained illegal abortions, often dying or experiencing severe medical complications. This was the second key argument against Canada’s abortion laws: that the law was simply impractical, unenforceable and that those who tried to enforce it were guilty of endangering the health and lives of women (by driving them to obtain dangerous illegal abortions).

When Morgentaler began his challenge, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not yet been adopted. After Morgentaler’s repeated acquittals by juries, some provincial governments announced they would no longer try to enforce the abortion laws, yet in some jurisdictions police raids (as well as attacks by anti-abortion gangs) continued. Abortion was now in a grey zone. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted in 1982, and in 1988 the Supreme Court finally struck down the law once and for all in light of the Charter, ruling in favour of Morgentaler’s challenge and in the right of women to decide for themselves if they wish to obtain an abortion.

Struggling to the end

Even though Henry Morgentaler was in his nineties, his fight for justice and equality for Canada’s women continued unabated. Indeed, his death has caused somewhat of a legal crisis in the province of New Brunswick, where he was in the middle of a lawsuit to make the province provide Medicare funding for abortions provided in his clinics there. New Brunswick, like PEI (and large parts of Newfoundland and Labrador), are problem areas in Canada where abortions are quite difficult to obtain. It’s not due to the legality of abortion, but due to the lack of abortion providers. And this is precisely what Morgentaler was fighting for.

Canada’s revered Health Act guarantees funding for necessary health care to all residents of Canada, but it’s a commitment that’s fulfilled unevenly in many parts of the country. The famous ‘Morgentaler Clinics’ were opened not just to defy an unjust law, but to ensure equality of access to all Canadians. A right is not a right unless we are all able to access it – regardless of place of origin, geographic location, ethnic background, or other distinguishing characteristic. This is a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy and the right to the equality of the person in Canada. And it was a principle that Henry Morgentaler fought to his deathbed to protect and to ensure.

When our heroes die, it is a time for those of us among the living to reflect. It is a time to celebrate the great lives we have been honoured to witness. It is a time to re-affirm the values we believe in, in our society. And it is a time to re-dedicate ourselves to the causes which are just; the values that define us; and the struggles that will ensure the freedom and equality of all Canadians for another precious generation.

At such times, the lives of our heroes loom large as examples and as inspiration. Henry Morgentaler is one of those great lives; indeed, he is among the greatest. At such times, it behooves those of us who believe in the qualities of our society’s heroes – those such as Morgentaler – to reaffirm our dedication to their cause, our commitment to their struggle, and our courage and unswerving loyalty to preserve the virtues of a great society despite the iniquities of an age of fear, petty realities and tiny souls.

Henry Morgentaler was a great Canadian. But he was not the only one. In the hundreds of tributes that arose upon his death, and in the thousands of voices across the country who found a hero against the tumult of a fearful age, he lives on. And his inspiration, and the greatness of his life, will propel millions of Canadians to protect his achievements, honour his virtues, and shape this country in the image of the heroic dream for which he fought.

Get our weekly newsletter for in-depth reporting and analysis delivered straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. Have a question? Contact us or review our privacy policy for more information.


Sign up for our weekly Indygestion newsletter


Sign up for the Indygestion newsletter

Each Saturday, we'll deliver a recap of all our in-depth reporting and analysis from the week.

Our donors make it possible.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s premiere outlet for progressive ideas is only possible with your support. Will you join us?

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top