JANUARY 15, 2008
VOLUME 5 NO 1

PATIENTS & PRACTICE

The Interview

The Morgentaler decision turns 20

By his estimate he’s performed over 100,000 abortions, many while it was still highly illegal. For that Dr Henry Morgentaler was jailed and called a hero by some, a murderer by others. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his victory in the landmark Morgentaler v Her Majesty the Queen case that decriminalized abortion in Canada. We spoke to the world’s most notorious abortionist at his Toronto office about the ruling, punk rock and ping-pong.



Photos of Dr Morgentaler: Ashlea Wessel

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 of choice.

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 good doctor.

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.

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. (laughs).

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 of Quebec.

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 happened.

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 performances.

Your life's been pretty punk rock. Is that your kind of music? Not necessarily. (Laughs)

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.

Interview conducted by Sam Solomon and Gillian Woodford

*In 1989, 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.

Please note: this is a longer web-only version of the interview that appeared in the print edition of January 15 2008.

 

 

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