Register Saturday | April 1 | 2023

Screening a Life

Dr. Henry Morgentaler

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon during the early days of summer. Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who was anything but quiet during his heyday as a public figure in this country, was in town for the screening of a made-for-television movie depicting his fight for legal and safe abortions. The movie, aptly entitled Choice, was filmed in Montreal by local production company Park Ex Pictures (Kevin Tierney, executive producer); an apt location as well, since Montreal was the city where Canada’s first pro-choice volleys were fired and where Henry Morgentaler first opened a clinic specifically to provide abortions in defiance of existing law. Looking fit and resplendent at eighty years of age, the doctor basked in the attention, but the day’s event—the spectre of his own life on the screen—also gave cause for reflection.

Sifting through the life of Morgentaler requires patience and a strong back. In the Globe and Mail newspaper alone, the name “Henry Morgentaler” appears in at least 625 articles between October 20, 1967, and January 29, 1988. This is the twenty-year period during which the fight over abortion rights (or wrongs) was raging wildly—a brushfire out of the state’s control. What began in 1967 as a thirteen-page brief presented by Dr. Morgentaler to a House of Commons Health and Welfare Committee—proposing that legal abortions be made available to all women on request—ended in 1988 with the Supreme Court of Canada striking down the existing abortion law (article 251 of the Criminal Code) as unconstitutional. In between, there were numerous criminal charges, trials, four acquittals by jury, death threats, fire-bombings, ketchup sprayings, attacks with garden shears, a ten-month prison sentence, a series of affairs, failed marriages, a Humanist of the Year award, champagne and dessert receptions with Gloria Steinem and June Callwood, and the endless search for meaning that many Holocaust survivors experience. This is where it really began for Henry Morgentaler—a young Jewish boy growing up in the Lodz ghetto in Poland, trying to live up to the ideals of his father.

Josef Morgentaler, Henry’s father, was a textile-union organizer and a leader in the socialist Jewish Labour Bund—a left-wing political party and community organization—in 1930s Poland. A hero to his children, Josef instilled in Henry the importance of justice and fighting for that justice. He was beaten and jailed many times for his beliefs; ultimately, in 1939, with the Germans in control of the country, he died for them. Henry was captured in 1944 along with his mother, sister and brother and shipped off to Auschwitz. Henry and his brother Mike survived the war, but their mother and sister vanished in the black smoke of the concentration camp. The idea that he needed to do something meaningful with his life took root behind those barbed-wire fences.

Henry Morgentaler did not merely contest authority; this survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau openly challenged it, defied it, goaded it, jabbed his finger into its chest and screamed a blue streak at it. His antipathetic relationship with Jérôme Choquette, Quebec’s justice minister in the early 1970s, was legendary. Morgentaler accused Choquette of being “directly responsible for the deaths and mutilations that may result” from his anti-abortion views. When they met by accident once in an elevator, Choquette turned the tables and called Morgentaler an “assassin.” Former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry, a candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in late 1984, found himself hip-deep in controversy when he declared that he would appeal a jury acquittal Morgentaler had won in his province. While not solely due to this decision, McMurtry lost his bid for leadership on the first ballot. And the list goes on. Even then prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who called Morgentaler “a fine humanitarian,” faced questions on his stance, simply responding that Morgentaler “deliberately broke the law … he can’t complain about being put in jail.” The diminutive doctor routinely called politicians “cowards” and many of them felt equally strongly toward him. Keeping the political pot boiling was the fact that the various government appeals of his acquittals in lower courts called the jury system itself into question, and many felt compelled to rise to its defence no matter what the decision involved.

Besides politicians, Henry Morgentaler also raised the hackles of certain religious leaders, particularly Roman Catholics, often at the highest levels of the diocese. In November 1984, the Archbishop of Toronto, Emmett Cardinal Carter, urged his flock of 1.1 million Catholics to fight laws that “do not sufficiently protect the unborn,” further saying of abortion, “This is the killing of innocents.” One of Morgentaler’s most vocal opponents was “Holy” Joe Borowski, a deeply religious former Manitoba cabinet minister, who vowed to block the establishment of Morgentaler’s Winnipeg abortion clinic, declaring, “That butcher shop will never open in this province.” It opened anyway, despite the court battles and inflammatory rhetoric bellowed through loudspeakers.

Ironically, Morgentaler first found governmental acceptance of his practice in the province that is perhaps the most devoutly Catholic: Quebec. In 1976, then Quebec justice minister Marc-André Bédard ordered all charges against Morgentaler dropped, and recommended that the federal government amend article 251 of the Criminal Code because it was “inapplicable.” By 1982, Morgentaler himself proclaimed that “Quebec, the most Catholic province, has become the most progressive.”

Morgentaler’s place in history is complicated by his relationship with the movement he came to symbolize. There were some in the women’s movement who did not want abortion to be the dominant issue of their platform. Others wanted the clinics being opened to offer more than abortion services, and there were inevitably many organizations that differed in any number of philosophical or strategic ways from the “Henry” camp. But Morgentaler’s rapidly growing profile in the media convinced groups to mobilize on his behalf regardless of other objectives, and funding efforts during those years were invariably associated with the Morgentaler Defence Fund. Henry Morgentaler became the cause and the cause became him: like it or not, most in the movement realized early on that their success depended on him. His compassion for his patients won over many who would otherwise have doubted his moral authority to speak on their behalf, and a man who loved women in his own way (Morgentaler has married three times and had countless lovers) became a feminist leader in his own way.

Today, Henry Morgentaler largely battles governments over who should pay for the legal abortions provided. The public war, at least in this country, has been won, even according to many of the doctor’s staunchest opponents. Joe Borowski said as far back as 1993, “Let’s not kid ourselves, unless something new develops, some political change or some surprise in the courts, there’s nothing we can do.”

And so a Morgentaler movie-of-the-week is set to air nationally this fall in Canada on the CTV network. But beyond the movie-of-the-week, the jury is still out on his place in the annals of Canadian history. No postage stamp bearing his likeness has been issued; no Order of Canada hangs from his neck; few honorary degrees grace his wall. The polarized views surrounding the abortion question may result in his never gaining the recognition from the establishment that many feel he has earned. As the title of Catherine Dunphy’s biography states, Morgentaler is “a difficult hero” indeed.