He was also a Canadian hero.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the man who spearheaded the reproductive justice movement in Canada, passed away yesterday at the age of 90.
It is said that Morgentaler performed his first abortion in 1968, at a time when such a procedure was still deemed illegal by the Canadian justice system. He was well aware of the risks; he faced potential imprisonment, anti-choice retaliation, and the revulsion of the medical community.
But to Morgentaler, the benefits of protecting women far outweigh any of the backlash:
“I decided to break the law to provide a necessary medical service because women were dying at the hands of butchers and incompetent quacks, and there was no one there to help them.”
In his eyes, the price of Canadian women’s safety was worth the risk.
Throughout the years, Morgentaler remained a proud defender of women’s health and an outspoken advocate for choice. As early as 1967, he urged the House of Commons to reconsider their stance on abortion, arguing that a woman should be able to protect herself from possible harm. He founded his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1968 which was subsequently raided by police and resulted in formal charges. In 1973, he demonstrated his abortion technique on national TV to prove the safety of his procedure. And despite having served 10 months in jail and risking further legal action, Morgentaler went on to establish several other clinics throughout Canada years before the procedure became legalized.
He even went so far as to list ‘abortions’ as his primary source of income on his tax forms. Always proud of his work, Morgentaler never missed an opportunity to speak on behalf of reproductive justice.
In 1988, his numerous arrests and incessant protesting finally paid off; in what has been referred to as the ‘Morgentaler Decision’, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the legal stance against abortion was unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Yet Morgentaler’s efforts didn’t stop once abortion became legalized. He worked to ensure that all women had access to abortion clinics and fought to have abortion covered under provincial health plans. He personally trained more than a hundred physicians and opened 20 clinics across the country.
In past blogs, I’ve often written about the restrictive abortion policies that plague New Brunswick, my adopted home province. We have one public clinic – a clinic that Morgentaler himself opened in 1994 - and share it with two Maritime Provinces. Unlike elsewhere in Canada, New Brunswick will not publicly fund abortions.
The restrictive New Brunswick policies angered Morgentaler. In 2003, Morgentaler sued the Province, combating the misogynistic New Brunswick healthcare system. In an effort to ignore the issue, the Province has continually stalled the proceedings; a decade later, the case has still not been brought before the court. But in spite of the long delays and what I would imagine was extensive legal bills, it didn’t lessen his resolve to fight for our reproductive rights.
So for us in the East, Morgentaler has a very special place in our hearts. He took up our cause. He defended our rights. And despite his ill health, and regardless of his age, Morgentaler continued to fight for the women of New Brunswick. He battled for me.
Our hero – my hero – is gone. We are left with an open court case that may sadly die along with him. We are missing our ultimate supporter, our selfless protagonist, our greatest champion. I, for one, feel a little bit lost without him.
But regardless of what happens in the New Brunswick legal system, and in the face of our sadness over his passing, it is crucial that we now honour him in the way he would have wanted – by advocating for the safety of Canadian women. Of all women.
We’ve come a long way since those early days in the 60’s, but we still have a long way to go. There are reproductive battles yet to be won, and it’s up to us now to win them. Continuing the legacy Morgentaler so bravely created. I can’t think of a more suitable tribute.
So thank you, Dr. Morgentaler, for protecting us – protecting me – for all these years. I am, as all of us are, grateful for your courage, your compassion, and your determination.
Rest peacefully. I can’t think of any one more deserving.