Dr. Henry Morgentaler died early in the morning on Wednesday, May 29, at home, with his wife Arlene by his side. The next few days and weeks will be full of the life and times of Dr. Morgentaler. Those who respected and loved him will praise his life’s work to make abortion safe and legal for Canadian women. Others will vilify him for those same accomplishments. Whatever your feelings for the man, he is, for the majority of Canadians, a true hero.
I first met Dr. Morgentaler in the early 1980s. I was volunteering for The Clarion, a small independent Toronto newspaper, the NB Media Co-op of its day. My first assignment was to attend the annual meeting of the Coalition of Abortion Right Action League (CARAL) and to interview the guest speaker, Dr. Morgentaler.
It’s important to remember that while abortion was available in some hospitals at that time, it wasn’t easy. Women had to appear before a panel of three doctors who would decide whether or not she could terminate her pregnancy. One of the speakers was a woman from Newfoundland. Shy and soft spoken she quietly told her story to an audience of more than one hundred, mostly women CARAL members. She was a mother of eleven children. When the twelfth came along, she knew she couldn’t cope with one more mouth to feed and chose to terminate her pregnancy.
After telling her story, she looked the audience in the eye and asked if there was anyone else who might have a story to share. You could hear a pin drop. No one moved for what seemed like an eternity. Then very slowly a woman rose from her seat. A few second later, another woman stood. It was like the start of an avalanche. Within minutes, more than half the women in that room stood, acknowledging publicly for the first time that they too had ended a pregnancy. It was a powerful moment and a clear demonstration of the importance of the small man at the side of the stage applauding their courage.
Henry Morgentaler believed passionately that women have the right to control their bodies and to determine when they are ready to take on the responsibility of being a mother. His passion inspired women and men across the country to jump on board and all their hard work came to fruition on January 28, 1988, when Canada’s restrictive abortion law was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Henry Morgentaler’s life was not in vain. But his work is not finished. I’m grateful for all he did but I know that it is now up to us to protect those rights against the forces that want to, once again, make abortion illegal. Access to abortion is difficult in many parts of the country but PEI and New Brunswick top the list. There are no abortion services at all in PEI and there is no funding for services at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton. So the struggle continues. For now, all I can say is “Thank you Henry”, we won’t let you down.
Judy Burwell is a former Manager of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton and a member of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.