Abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler deeply divided Canadian society

In his abortion crusade, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was both greatly honoured and deeply vilified, displaying the schisms in Canadian society.

Morgentaler was at the centre of the abortion debate for more than four decades

Dr. Henry Morgentaler was Canada’s most visible pro-choice activist. Even in his late years, with decades of struggle behind him, he continued to be as passionately committed to his controversial cause — ensuring that all Canadian women have access to safe, legal abortions.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler was named to the Order of Canada in 2008. (Canadian Press) ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

He died Wednesday at the age of 90.

Morgentaler's crusade can be traced back to the horrors of his early life, which he considers to be pivotal to his eventual career choices.

A Polish Jew, he survived the Auschwitz death camp (where he was tattooed with No. 95077). Both of his parents, however, died at the hands of the Nazis.

Morgentaler has pointed many times to what he saw as one of the root causes of Adolf Hitler's death machine — unwanted children who were fighting back against a family that abused them. "Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder," he said in June 2005 at London's University of Western Ontario, where he was awarded his first honorary degree.

Audrey Mehler, the producer of a CBC Life and Times biography of Morgentaler, believes those Auschwitz years instilled in him a desperate drive to accomplish something positive.

"He was nearly in tears as he described his need to redeem his life, to make his survival of the Nazi death camps count for something in this world," she said.

For his path to redemption, Morgentaler has been both greatly honoured and deeply vilified, displaying the schisms in Canadian society on abortion. Controversy arose again when he was named to the Order of Canada in July 2008.

Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada said she was "ecstatic" at the honour, adding that Morgentaler is "the epitome of what the Order of Canada is looking for because of his sacrifice and his dedication."

At the same time, the Archbishop of Toronto, the Most Rev. Thomas Collins, referred to Morgentaler's Order of Canada appointment as "tragic." He said Morgentaler has caused "great evil and great suffering, and the destruction of the most defenceless."

Dramatic debut on national stage

After his liberation from Auschwitz, Morgentaler won a scholarship and used it to study medicine in Germany. The new doctor and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1950 and settled in Montreal, where he practised medicine, embraced humanism and enjoyed life.

Key dates

1923 — Henry Morgentaler born in Lodz, Poland.

1950 — Moves to Canada after surviving Holocaust.

1955 — Starts a family practice in Montreal.

1967 — Urges Commons committee to reconsider abortion law.

1969 — Opens Montreal abortion clinic.

1974 — Acquitted by Quebec jury, later overturned by Quebec Court of Appeal. A jury later acquits Morgentaler a second time.

1984 — Acquitted by Ontario jury on abortion charges along with two other doctors.

1988 — Hails Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down the abortion law as unconstitutional.

2005 — Receives honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario in London.

2008 — Named to the Order of Canada.

In 1967, Morgentaler made his debut on the national stage and entered the abortion debate in a dramatic way. He testified before a government committee considering changes to the abortion law, advocating that any woman should have the right to end her pregnancy without risking death.

It was a bold statement. At the time, performing an abortion could land a doctor in jail with a life sentence. Women who had abortions faced imprisonment of up to two years.

Against that backdrop, Morgentaler at first refused requests to end pregnancies. But by 1969, he said he could refuse no longer. He opened an abortion clinic in Montreal and openly began performing abortions illegally — thousands of them. It was no secret; he gave interviews and even allowed TV news crews to film. He viewed the access to abortion as a simple matter of human rights.

Condemnation came quickly and on a variety of fronts. It didn't take long for his first arrest.

He was subsequently acquitted by a jury. But the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that acquittal and sentenced him to prison. He served 10 months in Montreal's Bordeaux Jail.

The law was eventually changed so that a jury acquittal could no longer be overturned on appeal, another piece of Morgentaler's legacy.

There would, of course, be many more arrests, two more jury acquittals (one in Quebec and one in Ontario), at least eight raids on his clinics, one firebombing and huge legal bills.

Battles after Supreme Court victory

Then, on Jan. 28, 1988 — a day he calls the greatest of his life — the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada's abortion law. That law, which required a woman who wanted an abortion to appeal to a three-doctor hospital committee, was declared unconstitutional.

It was a huge victory for Morgentaler and his supporters. "Finally, we have freedom of reproduction in this country," he said. He called it a victory for women, common sense and justice.

But the high court ruling did not specifically enshrine the right of a woman to have access to abortion. Rather, it tossed out the federal law that regulated it; that made it like any other medical procedure governed by the Canada Health Act.

Quick facts

Number of abortions performed in Canadian hospitals in 2011: 92,524

Number performed in 1987 (the year before the Supreme Court ruling): 70,023

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Insitute for Health Information

One of those principles is equal access. Two decades after the Supreme Court ruling, some hurdles still remain in many parts of the country.

Although slowed by a severe stroke in his 80s, Morgentaler continued to battle some provincial governments that don’t pay for abortions in private clinics and railed against those who, in his view, throw roadblocks in the way of women who seek to end unwanted pregnancies.

To be sure, many critics say his legacy is not one to be celebrated. But Morgentaler made no apologies, calling them misguided. He rejected their view that an embryo is a baby, that ending a pregnancy is ending a life. A blueprint is not a building, he says, an egg is not a chicken.