Henry Morgentaler gets Order of Canada

On the good side, bishops are outraged.

The CBC says,

Governor General Michaëlle Jean has named a leading abortion rights crusader as a Member of the Order of Canada, news that has outraged anti-abortion groups….

Morgentaler, a trained family physician, argued that access to abortion was a basic human right and women should not have to risk death at the hands of an untrained professional in order to end their pregnancies.

Morgentaler’s clinics were constantly raided by his opponents, and one in Toronto was firebombed. Morgentaler was arrested several times and spent months in jail as he fought his case at all court levels in Canada.

His victory came on Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law. That law, which required a woman who wanted an abortion to appeal [have her doctor present her case: the woman never got to see them and there was no appealing their decision] to a three-doctor hospital abortion committee [available only if the hospital had one and if it ever met], was declared unconstitutional.

The old abortion committee system provided uneven and uncertain access to abortion for desperate women. Only about one-third of hospitals had working committees and some of those never approved an abortion.

And statistics are on our side:

In “BTC [Blog the controversy?]:Fine day for a debate“, Aaron Wherry writes

Dr. Henry Morgentaler

Angus Reid surveyed the Canadian public just a couple weeks ago. Here’s what they found.

Fully 46% of Canadians think abortion should be permitted in all cases. Another 19% think it should be permitted, but with unspecified restrictions, 22% would limit it to cases of rape, incest or in order to save a woman’s life, and seven percent would allow it only when a woman’s life is at stake.

If you put the question to Canadians in terms of legality, only five percent say abortion should be outlawed. Three percent aren’t sure. No less than 91% of Canadians think the law should allow abortion in at least some form.

Henry Morgentaler left regular medical practice because of the suffering he saw among unwillingly pregnant women. He made it known that he was doing abortions. He was acquitted by juries who agreed with his defence that he was preventing suffering among his patients. His acquittal was overturned by a judge and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Morgentaler, a concentration camp survivor then in his fifties, suffered a heart attack in prison and completed his sentence under medical care.

He is a fighter. He defied the law in order to change it. His clinic was illegal not because he was doing abortions but because he didn’t have a hospital committee to approve his decisions. The law that allowed a judge to overturn a jury conviction was struck down and Morgentaler became the only person in Canada to have a constitutional amendment named after him.

The law requiring hospitals that did abortions to have committees to which doctors presented the cases of their patients was struck down in January, 1988. Abortion is now a decision between a woman and her doctor. The law governing abortion is now the Canada Health Act.

His opponents apparently live in blueprints instead of houses, since they equate a fertilized egg with a baby, apparently on religious grounds about “souls,” since logic certainly doesn’t do it. When he was in the news more often, his file of death threats per month was inches thick. (Canadian doctors have been shot at, shot, and murdered.) His Toronto clinic on Harbord Street was fire-bombed in 1992. Way to capture the high moral ground, folks!

Unlike Dr. Morgentaler, people who are fighting against all abortions all the time are struggling to make Canada a worse place.

Illegal abortion has consequences. Whole hospital wards were closed when victims of septic abortion stopped filling them. Studies of those days put it as the major cause of hospitalization and death in pre-menopausal women. (My mother, in for appendicitis, shared a room with a woman who died while the nurses treated her with contempt and told her to stop complaining about the pain.) The saddest tales from those days are of the children orphaned because their mother couldn’t afford one more mouth to feed.

New York Times, “The abortion orphans”


“The image of her in her casket is seared in my brain,” said Linn Duvall Harwell, who had just turned 6 when her mother died.

The hospital listed the cause of death as “pneumonia.”

She used a knitting needle.

She had a son and four daughters.

“She was a beautiful mother,” says Mrs. Harwell. “That must be understood. She was loving and affectionate. We were poor and it was 1929 but we were cared for. The minute she died, it all changed.”

“I can’t help but think how my life would have been different,” says Gwendolyn Elliott, who is a commander in the Pittsburgh Police Department. She was 5 when Vivian Campbell, her mother, died in 1950; she and her brother were raised by their grandparents. When she was 18 and ready for college, she tried to cash in some bonds her mother had left her and was told she needed a death certificate. And there it was, under cause of death: the word “abortion,” followed by a question mark.

The abortion orphans may be the shadow of things to come. Those of us who believe that abortion must remain legal are flailing about for a way to make vivid what will happen if it is banned once more. We have had the right so long that we have forgotten what the wrong is. Meant to evoke bloodstained tables and covert phone calls, the term “back alley” does not resonate for women who grew up with clean clinics and licensed doctors.

I have read interviews with people whose families fell apart, where brothers and sisters were split up and sent to orphanages or foster care after their mothers died of illegal abortion. Thank God for Dr. Morgentaler!



2 Responses to “Henry Morgentaler gets Order of Canada”

  1. ian in hamburg Says:

    This is indeed good news to anyone who watched what the man had to go through so many years ago in fighting for basic human rights. Very happy to read this.

  2. rebecca Says:

    I’m proud and fortunate to live in a country that honours Dr. Morgentaler! Thank you, Canada! I’m ready and willing to repeat it over and over again.

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