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March 19: The Father of Canadian Abortion Rights

March 19, 2013
morgentalerHenry Morgentaler, a Canadian physician who has challenged and changed anti-abortion laws throughout Canada, was born on this date in 1923. The son of Jewish Bundists in Poland who died in the Holocaust, Morgentaler survived living in the Lodz ghetto and then Dachau. He received his medical education in Montreal. When contraception became legal in Canada in 1969, he specialized in family planning and became one of the first Canadian doctors to perform vasectomies and to provide birth control devices and pills to unmarried women. Two years earlier, he argued before a legislative committee investigating illegal abortion that women should have the right to choose a safe abortion. After his public testimony, he received what he described as an "avalanche of requests" from women seeking abortions, and he was soon risking his career and imprisonment by providing them. Three times Morgentaler was arrested and tried, but each time he was acquitted by juries practicing jury nullification of an objectionable law. On appeal, however, a panel of five judges imprisoned him in 1976. Morgentaler served nearly his full one-year sentence before surviving a heart attack in solitary confinement. That year, the provincial government of Quebec recognized its abortion law to be unenforceable and liberalized it. Morgentaler then spent the next fifteen years opening illegal abortion clinics in other provinces across Canada, being arrested and then acquitted by sympathetic juries until, by the late 1990s, abortion law had been changed throughout the country. After a lifetime of death threats and defamation, Morgentaler was named a member of the Order of Canada on July 1, 2008. Morgentaler died on May 29, 2013 at the age of 90 of a heart attack. "Have all these people forgotten that women used to die in our countries from self-induced or quack abortions, that unwanted children were given away to institutions where they suffered enormous trauma that took the joy of life away from them and made them into anxious, depressed individuals with a grudge against society? Have all these people forgotten that an unwanted pregnancy was the biggest health hazard to young fertile women and could result in loss of fertility, long-term illness, injury, and death?" —Henry Morgentaler