Photos of Dr Morgentaler:
It's been 20 years since the
1988 ruling in your favour. Looking back, how do feel
about it? And I'm very proud of what I have been
able to achieve and the crowning achievement was the
Supreme Court decision of 1988, which legalized abortion,
took it out of the criminal code and doctors performing
abortions were no longer considered as criminals and
women could ask for an abortion and obtain one under
good conditions and thereby protect their health by
reducing the fatality, and their dignity as well. It
was a revolutionary decision, really, with tremendous
consequences for the health and well being of women.
I think that's the most important thing: the safety
of women has increased a hundred-fold.
Canada's current government
is, shall we say, ambivalent about abortion. Are you
worried they might try to restrict access? They're
not ambivalent, they're hostile! Yeah, I was worried
about the Conservatives coming to power, but although
they are known to be hostile I don't think they will
risk alienating 80% of Canadians who believe in freedom
Why did you get involved fighting
for abortion rights? Well, it sort of came gradually.
I was a general practitioner in Montreal, a general
practitioner, and from time to time I had women come
in for abortions and it was highly illegal at that time
and if I helped them I could go to jail, theoretically
for the rest of my life. I thought it was terrible that
these women were subjected to the danger of illegal
abortions and self-induced abortion, a tremendous toll
of death and injury.
Do you find it strange that
it was a man going to jail for this and not a woman?
Well, I never thought about it that way [laughs]. I
think to me it was a fight for justice. Whether it was
a woman who undertook that or a man, to me it didn't
really matter too much. I was a medical doctor, I was
in the forefront of this fight and I was qualified to
help women and I didn't see any reason why I should
be prevented from doing that.
Were you upset that your fellow
doctors didn't join the cause? I understood - it
isn't easy for anyone to risk their life, to go to prison
and risk the security of their family and so on. It
wasn't easy for me either. I had decided to do that,
I had decided it was my duty as a medical doctor and
a humanist. So I wasn't going to preach to others to
sacrifice themselves. The sacrifice had to be me.
Did they support you in spirit,
at least? They did. Many supported me in spirit
and many doctors referred patients to me.
Why humanism? I was a humanist
probably from early childhood. My father had been a
leader of the socialist party in Poland so it was sort
of a humanistic home and the ideals of humanism - human
dignity and doing something for the betterment of society
- were sort of part of the ethos of the family.
Who's your humanist hero?
Well, my favourite heroes are Bertrand Russell, Eric
Frum, and I would name Dr Barnett Slepian who was shot
in Buffalo by anti-abortion activists. He was a very
What about some of the more
famous humanists out there, like Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac
Asimov? I met Kurt Vonnegut, but I didn't meet Asimov,
though I enjoyed reading some of his books.
Should doctors be allowed to
conscientiously object to performing an abortion?
Yes. One fundamental reason is that doctors should not
be obliged to do things which they don't approve of
themselves, and secondly, a more practical reason, a
doctor who doesn't believe in it is more likely not
to do a good job.
Is it true that when you were
in prison, you threw your underwear at one of the guards?
It's a true story! I was set upon by guards unjustly
and they asked me to disrobe and I was in a state of
indignation and fury, and when they asked me to take
off my underwear I took it off and threw it in his face.
He was very angry - I was afraid he might hit me but
he restrained himself.
Would you do it again? [Laughs]
Oh, I don't know.
Do you keep count of the death
threats you receive? I never wrote it down, but
there were many. After a while I learned to ignore them
and not to take them seriously.
But some of them were serious.
Your clinic in Toronto was bombed. It was in the
middle of the night so fortunately no one was there
except a neighbour who was a bit affected. It showed
the fury of the anti-abortionists and they were dangerous,
there's no doubt about it.
I hear you got yourself a bulletproof
vest. Yes, I did get one but I very seldom use it.
I have it at home somewhere. The threats are very serious
and I took them seriously, but somehow I was so convinced
that what I was doing was right and just and noble that
I didn't think that anything was going to happen to
me. I'm not a believer in God, so I couldn't believe
that God would come help me but whatever - I thought
that I would survive, and I did.
the fact that you survived Dachau and Auschwitz help
you? I'm not sure it helped me - it's hard to judge.
The fact I survived through the concentration camps
gave me a heightened feeling of injustice and I saw
injustice meted out to women who needed abortions.
So in a way your experience
in the concentration camps is responsible for abortion
rights in Canada. To a certain extent, yes. I was
sensitized to injustice and when I was in a position
to do something about it, I felt it was a duty to do
so, at whatever risk there was. I had a feeling I was
fighting for fundamental justice.
The portrait of you in the book
"A Difficult Hero" is far from the
image of you as a freedom fighter. In fact you're painted
as arrogant and a womanizer. I got used to being
criticized or slandered or portrayed in a negative light.
So this is part of the price you pay for notoriety or
fame or whatever. And let's face it, I'm not perfect.
You've suffered from depression.
Do you think that was the result of stress from being
jailed and fighting your legal battles? I don't
think so, no. It had to do more with my experience in
the concentration camps and the ghetto and the fact
that I was a victim of circumstances beyond my control
and there's nothing I could do except to endure and
hope for better times.
Women have become much more
proactive in taking charge of their healthcare in recent
years. Did the 1988 decision have anything to do with
that? I hope it has something to do with it. In
general I think what happened was the recognition of
the right to abortion gave a tremendous boost to women
in the sense that they felt they were equal to men as
far as the law was concerned and the law would consider
them equal and take care of their needs. I think it
was a tremendous forward step in the recognition of
women's rights and I think it empowered women and that
was a very good thing.
What's your opinion of the US
Supreme Court decision to uphold the Partial-Birth Abortion
Ban Act? It's not a fair way of dealing with the
issue. The Supreme Court in the United States has become
more reactionary. Right now there is a majority of 5
to 4 for the anti-abortionists.
Do you think Roe v Wade
could be reversed, or parts of it? I hope it won't
be reversed. I don't think it will ever go back to a
complete prohibition of abortion in the United States.
Sex-selective abortion has become
a big issue within certain cultural groups in Canada.
Do you think it's ok for a woman to abort if the fetus
isn't the sex she wanted? It's a difficult question.
On the one side, for human rights, parents should have
the right to decide for themselves. But on the other
hand it seems a bit awkward to eliminate a fetus on
the basis of gender.
You're taking the government
of New Brunswick to court over the poor abortion access
there. What's going on in NB? It's an issue of religion
mainly, they are very highly religious and most of it
is influenced by religious groups like Catholics and
anti-choice Protestants. Even though there's been a
change in government - the Conservatives were there
for a long time and recently the Liberals took over
- there's no change in abortion policy, and they're
just as hostile to abortion as the previous government.
Where does your case stand?
It's being held up by a judge who is supposed to pronounce
on my status as someone who is able to challenge the
rule, that I should be able to bring the case forward.
And the anti-abortion people say it shouldn't be a man,
it should be a woman who brings this forward. I don't
see the reason.
Are you worried you'll lose?
I am concerned in the sense that I'd like to see it
resolved, and hopefully get a good judgement because
the women of New Brunswick are really deprived of services.
I had opened a clinic there about nine or 10 years ago
because women from New Brunswick used to come to my
clinic in Montreal which is 10 hours away by car and
we had a lot -- about 300 or 400 women a year. It has
been very busy but women have to pay and I think that
is completely unjust. It's a service that is supposed
to be under medicare. The government was claiming 'We
have a doctor shortage, we don't have the doctors who
can do it.' Then a couple of doctors actually came forward
and offered to continue the services in Fredericton
at a hospital.
Were you disappointed you weren't
able to open your clinic in Nunavut? Yes, but what
can you do? You can't do everything in life. You have
to do what is possible. But I have trained doctors for
a number of clinics outside of this one [Toronto], that
is my contribution. I always do training for free. I
believe it is a public service, I didn't think it was
fair I should charge them.
Where do you stand on the public-private
healthcare debate? I think in general healthcare
should be public. There are exceptions for some private
initiatives that might be worthwhile to provide more
facilities for people. But I am not dogmatic in any
sense - I think what works is what works. If additional
facilities are opened by private doctors, I don't see
anything wrong with that.
Have you had a good experience
in your contact with the healthcare system yourself,
as a patient? Yeah. Unfortunately I had a serious
operation about a year ago on my heart and I am still
not completely recovered from it but I am 95% recovered.
I had good care.
In a public hospital? Yes.
There was a poll in a magazine
called The Beaver last summer, called The Worst
Canadian. You came in third -- ahead of Paul Bernardo
and Karla Homolka but behind Pierre Trudeau, the worst
Canadian 'winner.' But a couple of years ago, you were
the 87th greatest Canadian on CBC. How do you feel about
being such a divisive figure? I know it's a very
contentious issue, and many people have very strong
feelings about it, most of them are religious people,
and the Bible determines their opinions. For many reasons
abortion has always been condemned by the Catholic Church.
They are adamantly opposed to abortion and opposed to
me as a person as well. I've had a lot of correspondence
that was critical, to say the least, of what I was doing,
disapproving and treating me as a murderer and using
all kinds of epithets towards me, whereas I believe
what I was doing was the height of humanism and good
deeds. So it was hard. Some people admired me and some
people hated me for what I was doing. I had to have
my inner compass. In my mind, I was doing a great job,
helping women out of a terrible dilemma, saving their
lives and their future fertility and their dignity.
The fact that many people disapproved didn't affect
me too much.
There was an Ipsos-Reid poll
a few years that said almost three-quarters of young
women in Canada had never heard of you. Does that bug
you? It's neither good nor bad. It's hard to evaluate
that. In the last 20 years since the Supreme Court decision,
abortion has become more available and more accepted
and therefore those people who fought for this right
have had to be forgotten I guess.
Are you worried that people
have become complacent? I think people are possibly
a bit complacent, yeah, and they don't realize the high
stakes of this battle, but so far abortion rights have
not been challenged too much, people feel good enough
is good enough and we just continue the way it is.
Many years ago you predicted
legalizing abortions would cause crime to drop. And
you were right -- it did. A book called Freakonomics,
written a few years ago by Levitt and Dubner said they
discovered this theory. Yeah, I read that. They
stole my idea. I'm proud of the fact that I was the
first one to point this out. I think I brought this
forward in about 1985 and then it was confirmed by these
two researchers. I felt justified, that I was a prophet,
almost. It made sense - the less children who are brutalized
and unfairly treated, the fewer of them will become
criminals who don't care about other people.
A lot of people believe women
are permanently traumatized by abortion. It's completely
untrue. If an abortion is done in a good atmosphere
like in any of my clinics women are treated with dignity
and understanding and they don't feel traumatized. They
feel they have made a difficult decision and fortunately
there are nice, sympathetic people who are able to take
care of them and they don't usually feel terrible about
it. Though some of them feel bad about it for their
own reasons, because they've been conditioned to believe
that abortion is murder or a terrible thing to do. Women
can be counselled here, and some of that can be neutralized
by counselling, but not necessarily everything. Unfortunately
some women remain with a sense of guilt for a long time.
In fact, the woman in Roe
v Wade changed her mind. Yes, Norma McCorvey,
she turned and now she condemns all abortions.
In Quebec, the sovereigntist
Parti Québecois supported you in the 70s. Do
you think Quebec would support you today, despite the
recent resurgence of conservative ideology there?
I don't think they've changed their position on abortion.
Quebec has become a very progressive province and the
majority of the population are in favour of the right
of women to have abortions. I recently won a case in
Quebec where the government policy has been reversed
and now women can get abortions paid for by the government
Recently there's been a debate
in Quebec about immigrants' rights. Have you been following
that, as an immigrant yourself? Yes, there's been
a bit of a backlash against immigrants. I don't think
it'll last too long, it is sort of one of these things
that happens occasionally.
Does the resurgence of anti-Semitism
that runs through that debate disturb you at all?
It never has been a big issue for me.
When the Chantal Daigle* case
happened in Quebec, it sort of brought the whole thing
back. What was your reaction to that case? I thought
she prevailed over prejudice, and I'm glad she did.
She fought for her own right, she was pregnant and didn't
want to be pregnant and eventually she got the abortion
which she wanted and everything was okay.
Were you worried when that judgement
came through - one year after your case - that it was
going to undo all your work? No, I wasn't really
worried. I expected a good result and a good result
You lived in Montreal for many
years. Are there things you miss about living there?
Yes, I miss a lot things about living there. It's still
my favourite city.
Are you a fan of some of the
classic eateries like Schwartz's and Moishes? (Laughs)
Yeah, I used to go to Moishes and Schwartz's.
Do you know the Montreal punk
band, Me Mom and Morgentaler? Yeah, sure. I met
them and I listened to their music. They're a nice group.
I like the band, but I think they disbanded.
You'll be glad to hear they
reformed and they're touring again. How did you meet
them? I invited them to my house and they came and
we had a party. And then I went to see one of their
Your life's been pretty punk
rock. Is that your kind of music? Not necessarily.
Do you have a superpower that
people don't know about? I don't believe in superpowers.
But I was a ping pong champion.
Do you have a message for Canadian
doctors on the 20th anniversary of the decision?
My message would be to treat abortion patients with
empathy and good care and to allow them the freedom
of choice and to provide good care. And not to be judgmental.
The decision is not easy usually and once a request
is made it is after due consideration and women deserve
to be treated with respect and understanding. I think
that's about it.
by Sam Solomon and Gillian Woodford
Chantal Daigle's abusive boyfriend Jean-Guy Tremblay
won an injunction from the Quebec Court of Appeal preventing
her from getting an abortion. The ruling was overturned
by the Supreme Court of Canada, which found that the
fetus has no legal status as a person.
note: this is a longer web-only version of the interview
that appeared in the print edition of January 15 2008.