Dr. Henry Morgentaler's death highlights abortion divide

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Canada's long and bitterly divisive abortion debate that Dr. Henry Morgentaler's death has produced the same kind of polarized reaction as did his decades fronting the effort to give Canadian women the right to legally end their pregnancies.

Supporters call him a hero, while opponents brand him a murderer

Morgentaler's legacy

The National

8 years ago
Abortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler has died at age 90 3:58

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Canada's long and bitterly divisive abortion debate that Dr. Henry Morgentaler's death has produced the same kind of polarized reaction as did his decades fronting the effort to give Canadian women the right to legally end their pregnancies.

To his supporters, he was nothing less than a hero. "Canadian women owe Dr. Morgentaler a tremendous debt of gratitude for standing up for their lives and health at great personal sacrifice and risk," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.

"He survived numerous threats on his life, a clinic bombing and aggressive protests. Yet, he was not deterred," she said.

Judy Rebick, a former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, worked with Morgentaler in the 1980s on the effort to legalize abortion.

"I think every women in the country has lost a major ally," she told CBC News. "He changed all of our lives by standing up against the abortion laws and eventually winning in the Supreme Court." 

'Historic' struggle

Carolyn Egan, who also worked alongside Morgentaler in the 1980s and was a co-founder of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, said his legacy won't soon be forgotten. "The struggle that he was engaged in between a doctor, the women's movement, you might say, and the Canadian government, was really historic," she told CBC News.

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But to his opponents, Morgentaler was little more than a murderer who deserved no accolades. And because he was for many years the only abortion doctor who dared to be so publicly defiant about exactly what he was doing, he quickly became the red-hot focus of their anger.

Today, anti-abortion activists pledged to keep up their fight to end abortion in Canada. "This is the end of an era and we hope that our country can now turn a necessary corner and find the courage to restore protection to all human beings, born and pre-born," said Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer of Campaign Life Coalition.

"As we wish for both ally and adversary, may God have mercy on [Morgentaler's] soul."

Protesters take part in a rally at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on July 9, 2008, asking for Dr. Henry Morgentaler's Order of Canada to be revoked. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press )

Campaign Life Coalition's national president, Jim Hughes, said he had been praying for Morgentaler daily for more than 20 years. "With that said, Morgentaler has been a highly divisive figure, training abortionists in his methods of killing, doing unbelievable damage to the future of this country and as a result, millions of Canadians have been aborted," he said. 

An anti-abortion group called Students For Life tweeted: "It's strange to see so many "RIP #Morgentaler" tweets. The man's life work had nothing to do with peace." 

It wasn't just opponents who speculated that Morgentaler's death might lead to a renewed abortion debate. Some supporters voiced the same sentiment.

"Our hope is that he will be memorialized respectfully and that even people who disagree with his beliefs or who disagree with women's access to abortion will still recognize the work that he did and the sacrifices he made in his own life," said Julie Lalonde, a board member with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

Efforts to reopen debate

Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose was caught off-guard by the news of Morgentaler's death, which broke while she was delivering a speech.

"I wasn't aware of that but obviously he was a big figure in Canadian history and made a huge impact on the nation," she said.

In some political circles, the abortion debate never really went away, even though Canada's highest court handed down its historic ruling that decriminalized abortion way back in 1988.

Some backbench Conservative MPs are currently trying to reopen the abortion debate but are facing significant opposition from Harper, who has told his caucus that he doesn't want to reopen the issue as long as he's prime minister.  

"I hope he made things right with his maker and, personally I disagreed with what he stood for ... regarding the issue of abortion," said Conservative MP Mark Warawa, one of the backbenchers who have been trying to reopen the debate. 

A woman enters the Morgentaler Clinic in Montreal on Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"I don't think anything is going to change immediately in Canada," Warawa added. "The government and all the parties have indicated that they do not want to reopen the debate on abortion."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on Morgentaler's death other than to say the abortion debate would not be reopened.

A pair of New Democrat MPs made reference to that backbench effort today, saying "we must remain vigilant against repeated attempts to roll back this right."

"Twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, declaring the old abortion law unconstitutional," said NDP status of women critic Niki Ashton and NDP justice critic Françoise Boivin in a joint statement.

"Unfortunately, even today, access to abortion remains unequal."

Liberal MP Bob Rae tweeted: "Henry Morgentaler was a remarkable man — courageous, single-minded, and determined to ensure a woman's right to choose without shame or fear."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Morgentaler's contributions were felt far beyond Ontario. "Our country has lost a man of great courage, conviction and personal bravery," she said in a statement.

"Due in large part to his efforts and advocacy, women in Ontario and across Canada have the right to control their reproductive choices."