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Who is Dr. Morgentaler and Why Should You Care?

I’m writing this because it is important that people know why he was so, so important to Canadian women. Thus far Jezebel has not written anything about him, despite my incessant whining. I won’t pretend that I write things like this on the regular; this article will be clumsy and not as intensive as I’d probably like. I'm posting it here on ODeck since I do not have any privileges with Jezebel. I am getting my information from cbc.ca and The Toronto Star. Quotes are from The Toronto Star.

In America, Roe V. Wade is infamous. I’m Canadian with a minimal interest in politics and even I know its importance in the history of women’s right to choose. In Canada, our “abortion case” was R. V. Morgentaler.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler had a horrible history. Born in Poland in 1923, he survived two concentration camps and the Holocaust. He came to Canada in the 1950s and opened a family practice. In 1967 he started openly advocating for women’s right to end pregnancies if they wanted to. He opened a clinic in Montreal giving abortions to women who wanted it. He spoke to the House of Commons, urging them to reconsider the abortion law.

“At the time, attempting to induce abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment and the woman faced imprisonment of two years.”


He opened up clinics across Canada.

In the 70s, a Quebec jury refused to find Dr. Morgentaler guilty for performing on-demand abortions.

“The Quebec government of the day was appalled by the verdict but eventually it had no choice but to relent and stop prosecuting abortion-related cases. More than a decade before the federal abortion law was struck down by the Supreme Court, it became inoperative in Quebec.”

In 1983, something similar happened in Ontario: he was acquitted on his charges of providing abortions. The Ontario Supreme Court overturned this decision, which eventually led to the Supreme Court of Canada hearing the case.

As such, on January 28, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down that part of the Criminal Code, deeming it unconstitutional.

“ ‘The right to liberty contained in (Section 7 of the Charter of Rights) guarantees to every individual a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life,’ Madam Justice Bertha Wilson wrote.”


However, this wasn’t the last of it: In 1992, his Toronto clinic was firebombed.

““If I have to become a martyr for the cause, so be it,” he told Canadian Press in 1998.

“I do not choose to be a martyr. I'd rather work for the cause and I've done things I'm proud of. I've established eight clinics which are going to be my legacy to Canada.

“I think I've contributed to a change of public opinion in Canada. If I had to die tomorrow by an assassin's bullet at least I've achieved something in life.”


In 2008, he received the Order of Canada. Quite a few Order of Canada recipients returned theirs in protest.

Morgentaler himself said at the time that he deserved the Order of Canada, “if I say so myself.”

He said he was proud of the landmark 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decision he fought for that made abortion legal. Canada became the only Western democracy with no criminal sanctions against the procedure at that time.

“Now in this country, women are not in danger (when) having an abortion,“ said a smiling Morgentaler.

“Women no longer die as a result of abortion. Women no longer get cut up or damaged as a result of abortion. Women no longer lose their fertility because of abortion.”


More recently, he sued the province of New Brunswick for their restrictions on abortions.

Today, abortions in Canada have no legal restrictions, but individual provinces have regulations and varying accessibility. It is considered a personal decision between a woman and her doctor as essentially a medical procedure:

"The right to liberty... guarantees a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life. ... The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state." (This is from the Supreme Court case)


However, there are still issues. Prince Edward Island has no abortion providers; women must go to another province. New Brunswick requires most abortions to be signed off by two doctors and performed by a gynecologist. There are Canadian pro-life activists but nothing quite as intrusive as in America. Occasionally, conservative politicians attempt to bring back the debate. To his credit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to do so.

I am lucky. I live in Toronto, where there are clinics and doctors should I ever need them. And for that, I am very thankful to Dr. Henry Morgentaler.

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