Since we are discussing illegality and restrictive laws, we would like to dedicate this column to the memory of the late Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who braved a harsh law to provide women. His sense of duty and dedication to the cause is unparalleled. He was imprisoned for the risks he took, and yet he remained until his death earlier this year a compassionate prochoice and feminist abortion provider and activist. Here is an article about him by blogger Anne Thériault. The article was originally published on her blog, The Bell Jar, on May 30, the day of his passing.
I keep thinking of ways to start this post, but I can’t figure out the right words to use. What do you say about someone whose contribution to your life, and the lives of all women, is invaluable? I guess that I should start with the most basic fact: Henry Morgentaler, doctor and agitator for women’s reproductive rights, died today. He was 90. His work helped save the lives of countless Canadian women.
Henry Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1923. A Polish Jew, he was sent to Auschwitz during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. He survived. His parents did not. He came to Canada in 1950. In 1955 he opened a family practice in Montreal. He soon began petitioning the government to reconsider their stance on abortion, and opened an abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. At that time, attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Dr. Morgentaler’s clinic was raided, and he was arrested, jailed and acquitted multiple times, both in Quebec and Ontario. Abortion was legalized in 1988, in no small part because of Dr. Morgentaler’s actions. In 2008, he was named to the Order of Canada.
I’m only giving the briefest of biographical details, because I know that tons of other publications will discuss and dissect his life much better than I can. And anyway, that’s not really what I want to talk about right now. I want to talk about how Dr. Morgentaler’s struggle to legalize abortion affected all of us, and continues to affect us to this day.
Full disclosure: I’ve never had an abortion, and I hope that I never have to. Not because I think they’re wrong or bad, but because I try to avoid medical procedures if and when I can. But I have friends, many friends, who have terminated pregnancies. And I know that most, maybe all of them would not be in the same happy, secure places in their lives had they chosen not to terminate.
Every baby should be a wanted baby. I have a son, and I wanted to have him. But carrying a pregnancy to term and then raising a kid is hard fucking work, and those things shouldn’t ever, ever be forced on any woman. My friends who have had abortions are able to live the lives that they do because they had the ability to choose. Many of them have very successful careers. Some of them have gone on to have planned, wanted children since then. Some of them already had children before, and have been able to enrich those children’s lives by giving them the time, care and resources that they worried would be diminished with the addition of another child. For some of them abortion was a difficult, emotional choice, and for others it wasn’t. But for nearly all of them, choosing to terminate meant being able to finish school, being able to work in demanding fields without having to make sacrifices for their families, or just being able to focus on their lives as they were, without adding an additional complication.
Anti-choice groups nearly always talk about what kind of cancer-curing genius any given fetus might grow up to be, but almost no one talks about what a woman might become if she chose to terminate her pregnancy. We already know that it’s basically impossible for the average woman to “have it all,” so really, who knows how many women would have gone on to make incredible scientific discoveries, be brilliant world leaders or do one of any number of things that might have changed the world for the better had they chosen to terminate a pregnancy. Or else consider the number of smart, successful women that you encounter every day – your doctor, maybe, or your lawyer – who may have been able to get where they are now because at some point in their lives they had to choose whether to have a child, and they chose not to. On a more mundane level, think of how many women would have felt able to leave abusive situations earlier if they didn’t have a child complicating the situation. Think of how many women there are worldwide live in grinding poverty, working two or more jobs just to make ends meet, because they were unable to choose to have an abortion.
Above all, think of how many lives Doctor Morgentaler saved by helping to legalize abortion. First of all, because the legalization of abortion helps Canadian women avoid the same awful fate as Savita Halappanavar, who died because Irish law prohibited her doctors from terminating a non-viable pregnancy that was medically dangerous to her. Second of all, because history has proved time and again that criminalizing abortions does not stop them from happening, it just makes them more deadly to women. Without Doctor Morgentaler’s work, Canadian women would still have to seek back alley abortions if they wanted to terminate a pregnancy, procedures which often resulted in infection, sterility or even death.
Doctor Morgentaler was someone who understood what true lack of freedom was. In 2005, after receiving an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Western Ontario, he said,
“By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential.”
He then went on to add,
“Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder.”
Having seen what the escalating restrictions of rights and freedoms had resulted in during the Holocaust, Doctor Morgentaler dedicated his life to giving Canadian women autonomy over their own bodies.
He said, “I felt, as a humanist and as a doctor, that I had a moral duty to help these women.”
Thank you, Doctor Morgentaler. Thank you for fighting for my right to choose, should I ever need to do so. Thank you for working tirelessly so that my friends could have the freedom to do whatever they want with their lives. Thank you for letting working class mothers choose to devote the time, energy and resources that they have to their existing children, rather than forcing them to add another mouth to feed.