Dr. Morgentaler receives honour

| June 17, 2005
It was a proud day for Dr. Henry Morgentaler and for those of us who have fought at his side these many years. And it was a proud day for the University of Western Ontario, the first educational institution to recognize the man who risked his life and liberty to win reproductive rights for women. It was a moving moment to see the tenacious fighter for women's rights dressed in purple robes finally at 82 years of age getting the recognition he deserves.

This is the first time that any mainstream institution has had the courage to recognize Dr. Morgentaler. Here is a man who has risked his reputation, his work, his marriage, his liberty and even his life to fight for what he believes in. Because of his courage, women no longer face the agony of an unwanted pregnancy with no choices. Because of his tenacity, almost every province has massively increased access to abortion. Because of his unwillingness to be intimidated by the state or the religious right, Canada is one of the few countries on earth where women have an unfettered right to choice.

He was honoured yesterday for his “determination, courage and effectiveness” in the fight for “human rights, especially the right of women to make their own decision regarding reproduction,” UWO Vice-President Dr. G. Moran told the Convocation.

The two long and enthusiastic standing ovations given Dr. Morgentaler by those assembled for Convocation and the largest ever turnout of faculty for a Convocation event, made it clear that the vast majority of the Western community supported the award and the principle with which the university and its president have defended their decision.

When reporters asked him what he would say to the some 300 anti-choice protesters who assembled at the University gates, he answered, “I would say hello. Peaceful protests are an important part of a democracy and they have the right to protest.”

In fact, the local media in London greatly exaggerated the opposition. They predicted a thousand or more protesters. It reminded me of the struggle 20 years ago when the ferocity of the anti-choice protests suggested much more support than they actually had. Ironically, local media attention to the protests meant that the national media was here in huge numbers to see that most of us support Dr. Morgentaler and what he has accomplished.

About 80 per cent of people in Canada believe that abortion is a private decision between a woman and her doctor. So why has it taken this long for any mainstream institution to recognize the contribution of Dr. Morgentaler to achieving this goal for Canadian women? The answer is simple: cowardice.

As Dr. Paul Davenport, the president of the University of Western Ontario has discovered, the moment any public figure speaks out for choice on abortion, let alone recognizes the contribution of Dr. Morgentaler they will be attacked relentlessly by the religious right in the form of the anti-abortion forces. It has been ever thus.

When I first became a spokesperson for the pro-choice cause in 1982, anti-abortion forces on the board of the agency where I worked tried to get me fired; they created dissention in the workplace by spreading lies about my using agency resources to support him; I was physically attacked on a subway platform; received endless threatening letters and phone calls; was almost stabbed by a man who was trying to attack Dr. Morgentaler and was regularly harassed by hateful picketers in front of the Morgentaler clinic. That was when they were stronger.

I learned from Dr. Morgentaler how to stand up to this harassment. By his example, I learned that if you stop doing what you believe in because of threats and intimidation then democracy is threatened. By now he should have had many honorary degrees and at least an Order of Canada. Bravo to the University of Western Ontario and shame to all the others up to and including the Governor General of Canada.

As this week's honour made clear, legal abortion has deep support in this country. But the religious right has gone on to other battles. The same forces have been organizing to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry. As recently reported in The Globe and Mail, fundamentalist Christians are organizing to win Conservative nominations in riding associations. A strengthening of the religious right in politics here as in the United States is a serious threat to the rights of women, and gays and lesbians.

They have the right to organize, but the rest of us have to stand up to them, to face intimidation if it happens and to speak out for our beliefs in equality and for a secular democracy. It is not the religious right that threatens democracy; it is those who refuse to stand up to them.

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