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.