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Henry Morgentaler: Recognition At Last

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After years of struggle, being jailed, reviled, and threatened Dr. Henry Morgentaler is finely getting some degree of public honour. The University of Western Ontario became the first mainstream public institution to recognise the significant contribution he has made in advancing the rights of women.

As a survivor of the Nazi death camps he could have been forgiven for taking an easy route through life. One that would avoid controversy and risk. Instead his became the face most identified with the fight for a women’s right to safe accessible abortions.

He first gained prominence when he challenged the laws of Quebec prohibiting abortion. He offered his female clients an alternative to the back street, dangerous methods that were the norm for that time, in the process saving many lives. For his troubles he was sent to jail. During his time in jail he went on a hunger strike to protest the law which had seen him incarcerated.

As someone who spent his early years imprisoned you’d think he would have tried to avoid the experience. But he spent most of the 1970’s in and of jail in one jurisdiction or another. Where provinces were limiting the rights of women to obtain abortions you were sure to find Henry setting up practice. Defying the laws and receiving more jail time in his attempts break down the barriers stopping women from access to the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

But the fight did not stop with the legalization of abortions. The next step was to ensure easy and equal access for all women. To qualify for coverage from provincial health insurance policies women were forced to comply with a variety of complexities and difficulties.

Only a very few hospitals in each province actually performed the procedure which would entail extensive travel and increased financial strain for women in outlying communities. In Ontario they were required to under go psychological profiling to ensure that they were “emotionally sound enough” to make the decision and get referrals from three doctors before they were even allowed to book an appointment.

It wasn’t until the Supreme Court of Canada declared that any law restricting the right of access to an abortion a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the1980s that it appeared Dr. Morgentaler’s battle was over. But the overturning of legal roadblocks was just the beginning.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the activities of the anti abortion forces had been limited to the occasional picket outside a hospital, protest at a court house, or lobbying of their Member of Parliament. But with the legalization of easy and accessible abortions they hit the streets in full force.

Attempting to challenge provincial restrictions on where a woman could obtain abortions Dr. Morgentaler had established free standing abortion clinics. Once the court’s decision came down these became a focal point for protest. Not being content with picketing the protesters began harassing patients as they arrived for the procedure.

Having lived near one clinic in Toronto I was able to witness women running gauntlets of abuse, swearing and threats as they attempted to gain admittance to the clinics. Restraining orders and police officers kept demonstrators off the grounds themselves, but they were no defence for getting onto the property unscarred.

Watching a scared, tearful woman being chased down the street by two large intimidating men shouting and waving placards in her face caused me to lose any respect I may have had for those opposing abortion. It is one thing to decide that something is not right for you, and peacefully protest. But I can’t believe they expected to elicit sympathy through that type of action. Therefore I can only conclude that they were simply attempting to intimidate women from obtaining abortions in contravention of the court’s ruling prohibiting any such action.

Shortly after that restraining orders prohibiting demonstrators from coming any nearer then across the street from the clinics, or any facility performing abortions, were issued for that very reason. Because demonstrations are not allowed to disrupt business or the flow of traffic on a sidewalk the result was the end of the pickets in front of the clinics.

It was shortly after that the book store next to the clinic in my neighbourhood was firebombed. Thankfully the attack took place at night and nobody was injured, and the clinic was undamaged. Whether they had got the wrong address, or were trying to circumvent the security of the clinic by exploding it’s neighbour in an attempt to do it damage is still not known.

In spite of this, and maybe even because of it, and ensuing death threats against him and associates, Dr. Morgentaler continued to perform and advocate for a woman’s right of choice. A determined and driven man he has risked his health, livelihood, reputation, and his life for a principle.

At 82 years of age he is finally getting the recognition deserving of his struggle. But as he would be the first to point out the struggle continues. Canada has not had an abortion law on the books since 1985. No government has wanted to bring the matter up for public debate fearing the sort of backlash, in any direction, that could be generated.

People need to be aware that the potential for this debate increases as the years go by. Even though the Court decision is a matter of record, there is no guarantee that attempts to circumvent it will not be attempted. If and when this debate takes place I can only hope that we can emulate Dr. Morgentaler and stand up for what we believe in, on both sides of the issue, with pride and dignity.

I personally think of abortion as a necessary evil for a sexually immature society. Until men are ready to admit that a woman has the right to decide her own fate in all matters, abortions whether legal or not will be a fact of life. It is their means of last resort for controlling what happens to their bodies.

For his work in ensuring the availability of this means Dr. Morgentaler deserves any and all honours bestowed upon him. I hope that the honorary degree presented by The University of Western Ontario represents only the beginning of a process of long overdue acknowledgement for a life dedicated to ensuring a woman’s right to control over her body and her choices.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Eric

    Honouring the abortionist Morgentaler is like commending Hitler for his efforts to improve German society by eradication of the “undesirables,” which is exactly what abortion does. Abortion kills human life, regardless of what ‘rights’ a woman ‘feels’ she has.
    You make the most ridiculous assertion when you say: “I personally think of abortion as a necessary evil for a sexually immature society. Until men are ready to admit that a woman has the right to decide her own fate in all matters, abortions whether legal or not will be a fact of life. It is their means of last resort for controlling what happens to their bodies.” It is precisely because women are permitted to decide not only their own fates but those of their unborn children that abortion is even a possibility. The real problem with men and abortion is that their own general morals and irresponsibile sexual behaviour victimizes the women they demeaned and shamed as well as the unborn children who pay for their sexual crimes with their lives. Morgentaler in his private life gives a perfect example of this immoral, irresponsible lifestyle and in his public life he is a dishonourable physician (now a murderer) who has forsaken his oath to preserve and protect life. What do you honour when you honour such a man? It is madness to call it honour.

  • Katrina

    You are stupid.

  • Harbeet Singh

    The ancients were right. The more things change, the more they stay the same. History is not progressive. It is cyclical. Greed, ambition, duplicity, self-interest, and above all, the lust for power – these are the things that drive history – so what’s new?
    The democratic twist on power was to put it in the hands of elected representatives of high repute; properly educated and respected persons with high ideals. But a recent Canadian poll attempting to rank popular occupations said politicians get a measly 4% rating for “respect” from the public. FOUR! Why, even a hose to empty a septic tank does better than that. Journalists and lawyers weren’t much better, at 15% and 11%, respectively.
    At least when respected sages spoke of the eternal rhythm of things and the need to be good, everyone agreed that there were, in fact, such things as goodness, truth, honesty, and courage. When they asked themselves what purpose life had, they came to the general conclusion that it must be more than mere pleasure. It was the pursuit of those higher things, for oneself, and for society. It was possible to agree on what is good.
    A prominent French anthropologist, Louis Dumont, divides all civilizations accordingly. A “holistic” society – the kind everyone claims to want to live in. You know, a real, natural community – is unified by an ideology of hierarchical values. There is a shared notion of good, better, best and bad. Ye olde praise and stigma flow accordingly, unifying all in the same moral bond. Sure, that’s the right word. True freedom is the freedom to bind yourself, not to “values” (a gooey notion, like the word “perspectives”) but to principles and norms.
    What he terms an “individualistic” society is the opposite. At the core of its ideology is “equality,” the idea of freedom for all from oppressive authority. Originally, such folks just meant freedom from governmental or monarchical authority; from thumb screws and the rack.
    But after the torture toys ended up in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the equal-freedom campaign had to go on a search-and-destroy mission for ever-diminishing authority targets. Even ordinary praise and stigma would have to go, in the name of moral neutrality. Everyone would finally be diverse, pluralistic, and free from all moral judgement. That is, free from each other. You see the point. More of this kind of freedom means less community.
    All societies must have individuals, of course, but the distinction here is that holistic ones begin from a different premise. They recognize the individual, but not as the sole source of norms. Rather, moral and social norms come from something higher than the individual – never from government, but from the moral demands of a spontaneous society conceived as something more and better than the mere sum of its individuals.
    Dumont argues that modern collectivist movements (fascism, communism, the welfare state) were, and are, in fact, not progressive at all. They are frantic forms of political reaction to lost community in a world that created its own spiritual void. They are an effort to impose an official holistic community from the top on societies that can no longer produce it naturally from the bottom.
    The fatal paradox of our so-called “liberal democracies” is that we can’t produce community because our political ideology has made a point of neutralizing the whole idea of norms on which community is based. That’s why at the extreme of imposed democratic equality you get not “liberty, equality, fraternity,” but secret police, the Berlin Wall, The Gulag. It’s because the second term of the slogan betrays the first, that the third can only be gotten by force.
    So liberal democracy is fast losing the legitimacy it had before corroding its own self. A kind of open schism has resulted, formerly suppressed by Cold War tensions, but now so visible in public distaste for (and sometimes the tragic shooting of) elites and opinion-manipulators of all kinds. It’s visible, too, in the troublesome formation of private militias – a kind of alternative community poised against government. And in all democracies, as in France this week, we see demands for referendum instruments to satisfy muted electorates who can’t get what they want through their own representatives. Democracy’s active self-contradictions are at work.
    Consider just a few key features of liberalism, and what has happened to them. Limited government? In Canada, with one government employee for every 5.5 citizens, there is no “limited” government. Canadians have more per-capita government than most countries in the history of the world, and a public debt to prove it. Equality? Entrenched in Canada’s highest legal document is a mandate requiring Canada to impose differential law, social programs, and rights on specified groups and regions – this is a kind of affirmative inequality. Free Parliament and Rule of Law? Unelected judges routinely take pleasure in disqualifying the people’s duly made laws, and by legal legerdemain finding fanciful unspecified rights Canada’s so-called Charter of Rights and Freedoms (so notoriously emptied of any responsibilities). And so on. Those willing to read the entrails of liberal democracy have plenty to occupy them.