Henry Morgentaler, a lynchpin figure in the history of legal abortion in Canada, passed away on Tuesday from a heart attack. Dr. Morgentaler was 90 years old.
Born in Poland and a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Morgentaler arrived in Canada in 1950. After graduating medical school and becoming a Canadian citizen, he opened Canada’s first independent abortion clinic in 1969 when abortion was still illegal. He was tried multiple times for violating abortion laws, but was acquitted in each case. One acquittal was overturned on appeal and he spent 10 months in jail. However, Morgentaler continued to perform abortions and open abortion clinics. After facing another overturned acquittal in Ontario, Morgentaler appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgentaler’s favor, determining that the country’s abortion laws were unconstitutional and legalizing abortion in Canada. However, provincial rules on abortion varied, and Dr. Morgentaler continued to challenge them as he encountered them. He also continued to perform abortions into his 80s despite clinic bombings, death threats, and health issues. In 2008, Dr. Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada, one of the highest civilian honors in the country.
National Abortion Federation’s president Vicki Saporta spoke with reporters about the doctor’s death. “Canadian women owe Dr. Morgentaler a tremendous debt of gratitude for standing up for their lives and health at great personal sacrifice and risk. He survived numerous threats on his life, a clinic bombing, and aggressive protests,” she said.
Catherine Ford, former editor at the Calgary Herald, wrote in a memorial piece, “Morgentaler leaves a legacy of freedom that to this day is unique in the world: the untrammelled and unrestricted choice of every Canadian woman to decide for herself whether to bear a child… Every woman in Canada owes him thanks for facing down the draconian laws of yesterday.” She concluded, “How successful was Henry’s single-minded determination that all women are capable of making up their own minds? Very few young women would recognize his name today and what essential part he played in allowing them the freedom to choose. Henry would see that as a resounding success.”
In 2008, Dr. Morgentaler spoke about his controversial life with an interviewer. He said, “I became the target of people who were opposed to abortion, and it was something I had to live with, but I am tremendously satisfied that my life was not in vain and that I was able to help a lot of people.”