Each year after Henry Morgentaler won his historic Supreme Court of Canada victory of the abortion law in 1988, a private party was held, amid strict secrecy, to commemorate that day.
A list of invitees drawn up by Dr. Morgentaler and his wife, Arlene Leibovitch, was a Who’s Who of feminist movement leaders, political allies, abortion doctors and clinic staff who had played a key role in the pro-choice cause.
Throughout dinner, one after another of these activists and devotees of the cause would take the microphone. Lawyers told colourful anecdotes about Dr. Morgentaler’s mulish refusal to be muzzled or take direction. Doctors and nurses attested to his devotion to patients and his adamant refusal to be cowed by even the most confrontational opponents.
The leaders of feminist, pro-choice groups often gave the most intriguing speeches. Their sharp-edged recollections mellowed by the passage of time, powerhouses such as Norma Scarborough, Judy Rebick, June Callwood, Cherie MacDonald and Carolyn Egan told tales of fierce strategy debates with Dr. Morgentaler – a male physician with an autocratic bent who had, because of historical happenstance and his uniquely driven personality, become an essential ally.
While these women had chafed at seeing Dr. Morgentaler become the public face of a cause integral to feminism, they recognized his remarkable ability to coalesce support and remain unbending under pressure. Willingly, they had submerged their role in order to present a united front.
Their stories of clashes were also invariably laced with undisguised love for a man who had put his life and liberty on the line, time after time, in a display of outspoken, insistent, civil disobedience rarely before seen in Canadian social discourse.
The most visible face of Dr. Morgentaler’s legacy will always be his Supreme Court triumph. Yet, on a more abstract plane, he showed the country that a single, fiercely articulate, obsessively determined, media-savvy individual can create a tidal surge of change.
Morris Manning, Dr. Morgentaler’s lawyer, looks back on the abortion battle as a historic confluence of one person with a cause whose time had come.
“Henry Morgentaler was the quintessential example of the power of one,” Mr. Manning said Wednesday. “That one person showed the world with moral courage and commitment that oppressive laws, and those who apply them, can be changed.”
However, Dr. Morgentaler and the women’s movement required one additional ingredient before their goals could be achieved – a legal vehicle that could enable them to override the reluctance of political leaders to accommodate abortion by choice.
It arrived in 1982 in the form of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which proclaimed the fundamental rights of the individual as being paramount to the collective will as expressed through political decision-making.
With the Charter at the forefront of their strategy, Dr. Morgentaler and his allies set about rewriting entire chapters of the book of civic engagement. In open defiance of the law, they opened an abortion clinic in supposedly staid, downtown Toronto. They orchestrated mass demonstrations, crafted sophisticated legal arguments, and courted public opinion through the management of a masterful media strategy.
The 1988 Morgentaler judgment was a monumental precedent, not just in reforming the abortion law, but in announcing to the country that judges would not shy away from using the Charter as a mighty weapon against injustice to the individual.
“Quite apart from the abortion issue, Dr. Morgentaler will be remembered as a person who took on the legal system and forced it to be fair,” Mr. Manning said. “He will also be remembered as a person who took on the medical establishment and forced them to remember what the Hippocratic Oath was really about.”
Maria Corsillo, long-time director of a Toronto abortion clinic and wife of Dr. Robert Scott – who fought the legal battle alongside Dr Morgentaler – said the abortion battle underlined that the patient-doctor relationship is an equal partnership.
“Dr. Morgentaler’s fight for abortion rights for women changed the way patients see themselves,” she said. “Once that started to happen, the democratization of health care was almost inevitable.”
At an even deeper level, Dr. Morgentaler’s fight took on entrenched cultural norms, Ms. Corsillo said: “What is a good doctor? What is a good woman? What is a good mother? He was completely unafraid to challenge those things. Anyone who wants to change the world needs to be that fearless. Dr. Morgentaler’s life is a blueprint for challenging and changing laws.”
For his part, Dr. Morgentaler loved his role as the champion of women. A survivor of the Holocaust, he was almost pathologically opposed to authority and officialdom. It made him see red that clerics and male politicians felt they had the right to tell women what they could do with their bodies.
True to his humanist roots, Dr. Morgentaler’s guiding, intellectual philosophy was a seamless composite of diverse elements. Beyond his belief in individual autonomy, he viewed criminals as the inevitable result of end of a society that forces children upon parents who are too young, too unprepared or simply incapable of providing loving relationships.
Why did he choose abortion as his mission? Dr. Morgentaler’s response to this question varied, but the most compelling answer I can recall him giving was that the abortion issue really chose him, in the form of patients who were risking their lives to obtain abortions from backstreet butchers in Montreal.
His need to define his existence with a social mission was underlined many years after his legal victory, when he invited me out to discuss new causes he might adopt. Dr. Morgentaler gave serious thought to championing the reform of the laws governing euthanasia or prostitution.
However, in the end, he seemed to recognize that the abortion battle was unending and would also require his leadership to fight for access in pockets of the country where local authorities were recalcitrant.
At each annual “victory party,” Dr. Morgentaler would eventually take the microphone. Commencing with an almost shy round of thanks, he would built toward a thunderous denunciation of what he perceived as political toadies, police “bullies” and “religious zealots” who imposed their beliefs on women.
Those who heard him speak – and countless women across the country – recognized more than Dr. Morgentaler’s moral courage and commitment to their cause, according to Mr. Manning, a frequent invitee.
“In a male-dominated society – as was the case in those early years – a person who had suffered as he had suffered and who was committed as he was committed was, was the perfect hero for their cause,” he said.
Dr. Morgentaler’s razor-sharp mental alertness began to desert him in recent years. However, he could still marshal his focus on occasions that truly mattered. Perhaps sensing that the end was approaching last January, Ms. Leibovitch gathered the clan.
A Quebec chanteuse sat in Dr. Morgentaler’s lap and crooned a love song. Close friends hugged him and again sang his praises. And Dr. Morgentaler, in a weak but determined warble, renewed his vows to their cause one last time.
Cabinet ministers leaving the House of Commons following Question Period declined to answer questions from reporters on the death of Dr. Morgentaler. The Prime Minister’s Office – which often issues a statement marking the death of prominent Canadians – did not do so in this case.
Rona Ambrose, minister responsible for the Status of Women
Obviously he was a big figure in Canadian history and made a huge impact on the nation.”
Bob Rae, fomer leader of federal Liberal Party
“Henry was a man of great courage and determination. He changed more than the law. He helped to end generations of hypocrisy and repression. And through it all, he stayed true to his beliefs and his friends.”
Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party (in a tweet)
“Sad to hear of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death. A crusader for women’s reproductive freedom, his contributions will be remembered.”
Niki Ashton, NDP critic on the Status of Women
“He was a champion for reproductive justice and women’s rights and his legacy will live on as we fight to defend a woman’s right to choose and as we continue to fight for equality.”
Judy Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women
“I think every women in the country has lost a major ally. He changed all of our lives by standing up against the abortion laws and eventually winning in the Supreme Court.”
Kathleen Wynne, Ontario Premier“Our country has lost a man of great courage, conviction and personal bravery.”
Robert Scott, Dr. Morgentaler’s co-defendant in the case that went to the Supreme Court
“Our country has lost a great and good man, a great and good citizen, and a great and good physician who was a true and steadfast champion of women’s rights. He will be truly missed.”
Vicki Saporta, National Abortion Federation president
“Canadian women owe Dr. Morgentaler a tremendous debt of gratitude for standing up for their lives and health at great personal sacrifice and risk. He survived numerous threats on his life, a clinic bombing, and aggressive protests.”
John Hof, president of United for Life BC
“Throughout his life Henry advocated for abortion and made millions of dollars committing them. He was the poster boy for a movement that made Canada the most barbaric first-world country on the planet with no restrictions whatsoever.”
Mary Ellen Douglas, national co-ordinator for Campaign Life Coalition
He wasn’t really a lovable character. ... But for the pro-abortion women, they made him their hero. All of these dead babies are in his hands and on his conscience.”
Mark Warawa, MP from B.C
“I disagreed with what he stood for and regarding the issue of abortion. I hope that he made things right with his maker.”
- Abortion rights crusader Henry Morgentaler, revered and hated, dead at 90
- Dr. Morgentaler was a ‘mover of history’
- 'We'll never forget the fight': Paying tribute to Dr. Henry Morgentaler