Dr. Dawg

RIP Henry Morgentaler, OC

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Henry Morgentaler.JPG

A great Canadian is dead.

I first met Henry in 1964, when he spoke at the founding meeting of the McGill Humanist Association. The next time was 1970: the Abortion Caravan, which had traversed the country to protest restrictive and dangerous abortion laws, pitched up in Ottawa. They and their local supporters trooped into the House of Commons for a speech session in, if I remember rightly, the Railway Committee Room.

A man I thought I recognized rose to speak to the gathering. He was clearly pro-choice, but he did not choose his words well, sounded a little patronizing, and he was booed by some of the militants there. (Future MP Sheila Copps, sitting at the back of the room with her “pro-life” claque, booed him on principle.)

Four years later, it all came together. Henry was arrested in Montreal for performing illegal abortions. Defence committees sprang up all over, including in Ottawa, where I got actively involved. Rather than put desperate women through the humiliation of begging a three-person hospital abortion committee to allow termination of a pregnancy, he offered them the help they needed.

Those hospital committees, the only authority that could legally allow an abortion to proceed back then, were something else. Only a fifth of Canadian hospitals had established them, and some of them never approved a single abortion request.

Henry’s resistance in the face of zealous prosecution by the Quebec government is the stuff of legend. Acquitted over and over again, he remained in prison. I recall an editorial cartoon showing a meal being slipped under a dungeon door by a jail guard: “Good news Dr. Morgentaler, you’ve been acquitted again. Bon appetit!”

He was refused his heart medication in jail, and even thrown in the hole. I recall John Diefenbaker, his eyes flashing, denouncing his treatment on national television.

A higher court in Quebec actually substituted a guilty verdict on one occasion for a jury finding of innocence. That was so manifestly an abuse of process that Parliament passed a law—the so-called “Morgentaler amendment”—forbidding the reversal of a jury verdict of innocence by a higher court.

Eventually they let him out on bail as the process continued.

I met Henry on several occasions. My then-spouse and I helped to organize a fund-raising dinner for him here in Ottawa. The doorman at the hotel was pleased, as I recall, and greeted him warmly. He spoke magnificently. Afterwards we had him back to the house, where we watched him hypnotize one of his many supporters, sculptor Maryon Kantaroff. (He was never able to hypnotize me, but I recall playing along at another gathering because I didn’t want his feelings hurt!)

My friend Eleanor Pelrine helped to organize another one in Toronto at Sai Woo’s. Henry was present, but had been gagged by court order. There was no shortage of others to speak for him, however, including Charles Templeton: “Some say the law is an ass. I would call it an asshole.”

I saw an attractive blonde woman in the restaurant and, having poor facial recognition ability, asked Eleanor, “Is that June Callwood?” She laughed in surprise. “No! It’s Xaviera Hollander.” And so it was!

I spent a little time with him at Eleanor’s and our paths crossed at Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) AGMs as well. In person he was a lot of fun, obviously enjoyed life immensely, and it must be said that he had a way with the ladies, too.

When the Parti Québécois came to power in 1976, the judicial travesty came to an end. The new government announced it would no longer enforce the sections of the Criminal Code that made abortion illegal. Morgentaler was a free man.

Twelve years later, his landmark court case was decided at the Supreme Court. The existing abortion law was struck down in its entirety. An attempt by Liberals and Conservatives to bring in a new law lost in the Senate—on a tied vote.

Henry was indeed “the doctor who couldn’t turn away,” as Eleanor called him in her biography of that name. An Auschwitz survivor, his experiences set a fierce and angry flame alight in him. He just couldn’t be stopped. He took on the various provincial establishments to set up his clinics. He spoke out against those who would send women back into the dangerous alleys that killed far too many of them before abortion was legal.

He received, at long last, the Order of Canada, in July, 2008. The times had changed, and he was finally recognized as the hero he was.

I was proud to call Henry a friend, as much of a cliche as that may be. But he had thousands of friends, of course, many of whom had never met him. Tonight we are all mourning his passing. I lift a glass in farewell, Henry—and to your memory.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 29, 2013 5:22 PM.

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