This week, Dr Henry Morgentaler died at the age of 90. Not many people here in the UK have heard his name but he is an extremely important figure in the abortion rights movement.
Born in Poland, Morgentaler’s Jewish family were sent to Auschwitz in 1944 – his mother and sister died there. Morgentaler survived both Auschwitz and Dachau and eventually settled in Canada where he graduated from the University of Montreal as a medical practitioner. When contraception was legalised in 1969 he began to specialise in ‘family planning’ and was one of the first Canadian doctors to provide IUDs and contraceptive pills to the unmarried.
On behalf of the Canadian Humanist group to which he belonged, Morgentaler spoke at a House of Commons meeting in 1967, stating his belief in the importance of safe, legal abortion for women. This appearance led to him being inundated with requests to perform abortions (at the time the procedure was illegal, except to save the woman’s life) which at first he refused, through fear of prosecution. However, through his medical practice he encountered a number of women who had suffered from botched illegal abortions and saw, first hand, the effect this lack of access had on their health and lives. In 1968 Morgentaler performed his first abortion at his private clinic, for the 18 year old daughter of a friend. He said:
“I decided to break the law to provide a necessary medical service because women were dying at the hands of butchers and incompetent quacks, and there was no one there to help them...The law was barbarous, cruel and unjust. I had been in a concentration camp, and I knew what suffering was. If I can ease suffering, I feel perfectly justified in doing so.”
In 1969, the law changed to allow abortion, but only in hospitals, and where a woman’s request had been approved by a committee. However, the majority of hospitals did not have such a committee, and many did not meet, so women in these areas were still suffering from a lack of legal access to abortion. Morgentaler’s abortions remained illegal under this law, and he risked life imprisonment as well as physical attacks and death threats in order to challenge the law and provide safe, legal abortions to the women he saw in his clinics.
When Morgentaler was put on trial in the 1970s his lawyer argued the ‘defence of necessity’ – that as a doctor, Morgentaler’s responsibility was to safeguard the health and life of his patient, overriding legal restrictions which might conflict with this. Despite being acquitted by a jury, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and underwent a number of trials and appeals to challenge the existing law. Eventually it was the public support for legal abortion, and for Morgentaler’s campaigning and actions which led to abortion becoming legal in 1988. Public juries repeatedly acquitted Morgentaler and polls found that a vast majority of Canadians believed abortion should be a decision made by a woman and her doctor. The Supreme Court ruling in 1988 essentially removed all criminal restrictions on abortion, leaving it to be governed by Canada's laws concerning medical practice (as with other medical procedures).
The Chief Justice in this case said at the time:
"Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus a violation of her security of the person."
Canada remains one of the few places in the world where there are no legal restrictions on abortion. Many worry that a lack of such restrictions will lead to an increase in abortions, but this is evidently not the case:
In Canada, the teenage birth and abortion rate is 27 per 1000 women between the ages of 15-19 versus 61.2 per 1000 women in the United States.
The abortion rate among all women of reproductive age (15-44) in Canada is 14.1 per 1000 versus 20 per 1000 in the United States. (Stats from Dr Jen Gunter).