Dr. Henry Morgentaler: Reflections on My Struggle to Make Abortion Legal

and Available in Canada

Keynote Address delivered by Dr. Henry Morgentaler at the 20th Anniversary of R v. Morgentaler Symposium January 28, 2008.

This is a truly momentous occasion. I am happy to be among so many people who have taken the time to mark a very special day. It has been twenty years since a historic Supreme Court decision profoundly changed the lives of women in Canada. The Morgentaler decision by the Supreme Court of Canada of 1988 is an important milestone in the emancipation of Canadian women. This is a proud moment not only for me but for all those people who have played such an important role in this movement.

In 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women have the right to make choices concerning their own reproductive health. I am proud to have played such a pivotal role in that decision. I also believe that the world is a kinder, gentler place for women in Canada because they do have the right to make choices.

The first case to be litigated after the decision was in Nova Scotia, where the Government was intent on destroying the clinic which I had established there. It had introduced legislation to make abortion outside of hospitals a criminal act, liable to a $50,000 fine for each procedure. Fortunately the judge who presided over my trial in Halifax declared this legislation invalid and I was able to operate the clinic in Halifax for eight years, providing services to women from all the Maritime provinces.

Over the years, I have developed a near perfect surgical procedure. I have had the privilege of training over 100 doctors to do this procedure safely and compassionately. At one time there were eight Morgentaler Clinics across Canada. I built those clinics to ensure fair and equal access to the abortion procedure in a safe and secure environment with caring and respectful service providers. I am very proud of my remaining clinics and of the high quality of services they continue to provide.

The past 20 years have certainly had their share of challenges, but I believe I have met those challenges head on. I have debated publicly on radio and television and unfortunately exposed myself and my family to threats and harassment.

Although we mark 20 years since the Supreme Court decision, we must be cognizant of the fact that there have been additional court battles across Canada since that time. I continue to fight the province of New Brunswick; a province whose Government continues to stubbornly insist that women have no access to abortion; where women continue to have to walk through protestors; where doctors are still being harassed.

It is clear that children, who grow up wanted, loved and cared for, grow up to be emotionally healthy adults. I believe that the documented decrease in crime today is directly related to the fact that women can now make choices concerning their own reproductive health. I believe that our society is a better society today than it was thirty years ago. I am thankful to have been able to play such an important role in ensuring that women are treated justly, with dignity and respect.

Let me review briefly the situation in Canada regarding access to abortion services across the country. Six provinces now have reasonably good access; Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Quebec and Manitoba.

We have won a class action suit in Quebec recently and women in Quebec now have good access to abortion services under Medicare.

In Manitoba, where I had to fight the Government for 20 years, I eventually sold my clinic in Winnipeg to a group of pro-choice women. The clinic I established eventually received funding so that women can now access abortion services under Medicare.

The situation in the Maritimes is still difficult. My Newfoundland clinic got funded many years ago and women there no longer have to travel all the way to Montreal for abortions. The main Nova Scotia hospital providing abortion services hired a Halifax doctor whom I had trained and improved access so that my clinic there, which had existed for 10 years, was no longer necessary. PEI has not had a facility offering abortion services for many years, so women there have to travel to Halifax or New Brunswick for abortions.

The only province which deprives women of access to abortion is New Brunswick. I established a clinic 14 years ago in Fredericton, which the Government still refuses to acknowledge or fund, so access to abortion services is still inadequate. I have initiated legal action against the Government of New Brunswick, but the process is slow. In the meantime, women in New Brunswick are deprived of services and are obliged to pay for them out of their own pocket. Unfortunately the Liberals who replaced the Conservatives in power in that province are as anti-choice as the Conservatives; nothing much has changed since they took power.

In the major cities and population centers in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, women now have access to abortion services under Medicare. In the smaller population centres in the Maritimes and in vast areas of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, women have to travel to obtain them, but overall the situation has improved dramatically since the 1988 decision.

I have personally been responsible for opening eight clinics across the country, of which seven still provide services. What my clinics have achieved is a standard of care based on competence and compassion; where the safety and dignity of patients is the major consideration. I am proud to say that in all the years of operation, my clinics have achieved an outstanding degree of safety. In all those years not a single woman died as a result of an operation and the rate of complications has remained very low.

Over the years, in spite of threats and harassment by anti-choice fanatics I have been able to establish clinics where women are treated with competence and dignity. I have trained many doctors and nurses who established and worked in facilities with a similar philosophy of care and compassion. I am proud of what I have been able to achieve.

I wish to thank the doctors, nurses, counselors and other staff in my clinics, who have helped me to attain a high degree of safety and competence. I wish to congratulate all staff members in abortion clinics across Canada who continue to provide services in spite of harassment and threats.

Here in Canada, I can still remember the years before the Supreme Court decision, when abortion was illegal and unsafe and was responsible for many preventable deaths of young women. Major hospitals like the Royal Victoria or Saint Luc in Montreal had entire floors filled with women who were dying or were seriously injured from unsafe, illegal or self-induced abortions. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

In Canada abortion is available on request, the direct result of the Supreme Court ruling in 1988, which gave women the right to control their bodies, and most importantly, the ability to choose motherhood at a time that was appropriate for them. The Supreme Court decision allowed me and other physicians to establish clinics across the country which could provide the services that women needed, with competence and compassion.

The Morgentaler decision of the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the dignity and equality of women in this country; breathed new life into the Charter of Rights and added a new dimension to democracy and liberty in Canada. Canada is amongst the best countries in the world for mortality of women and babies in the process of childbirth. “Every mother a willing mother; every child a wanted child” is a slogan which, if implemented, creates stronger families, better communities and a kinder, gentler society.

Over the past 37 years I have dedicated myself to the struggle to achieve rights to reproductive freedom and to provide facilities for women. This struggle gave meaning to my life, and corresponded to the ideals that I inherited from my parents: dedication to human rights and an ability and willingness to make this world a better place to live.

Let me end on a personal note. I am a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, that orgy of cruelty, brutality and inhumanity. I have personally experienced oppression, injustice and suffering inflicted by those beholden to a racist, dogmatic and irrational ideology. To have had the opportunity to diminish suffering and injustice has been very important to me. Reproductive freedom and good access to safe abortion means that women will be able to give life to wanted babies at a time when they can provide love, care and nurturing.

In my fight over the past decades for reproductive freedom and in helping to make it possible in Canada, I believe that I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential.