Dr. Henry Morgentaler is most famous Canadian pro-choice physician. His outspoken support for reproductive rights have taken him to court rooms, protests, fundraisers and award ceremonies across the country. His relentless campaigning and trust in women has helped made it legal for women to get safe, confidential and sanitary abortions.
Morgentaler was born in 1923 in a small town outside of Warsaw in Poland. When Germans invaded his town during the Second World War, Morgentaler lived in a Jewish ghetto with his family. His father was arrested and murdered by the Gestapo. After the ghetto was raided, his mother was murdered in the Auschwitz concentration camp while Morgentaler and his brother were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. They remained there until the camp was liberated at the end of war in 1945.
Morgentaler met his wife in Belgium where he was living illegally at the time. They married in 1949 and immigrated to Canada a year later. They soon settled in Montreal and started a family while Morgentaler studied medicine at the University of Montreal. Though he started his career as a general practitioner, he began to specialize in family planning and reproductive rights.
Abortions became illegal in Canada in 1869. Women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies were forced to seek out untrained amateur abortionists on the black market. These abortions were often unsanitary and easily botched. From the 1920s to the 1950s it's estimated that 6,000 women died because of failed illegal abortions.
Women who did seek safe abortions had to testify before a committee of doctors and prove that their abortion was endangering their life. The choice was given to a board of male doctors rather than women themselves.
In 1967, Morgentaler publically testified about a woman's right to safe, legal abortions to a government committee. It wasn't long until women were contacting Morgentaler directly, asking for abortions. At first, he refused and tried to refer them to other doctors, but as these doctors were shut down, Morgentaler took it upon himself to perform the procedure.
His civil disobedience to abortion laws came at great risk to himself and his career - Morgentaler could have easily spent time in prison or lost his practice for performing safe abortions. In 1968, he gave up his family practice to start a private clinic where he could perform abortions. A year later, his clinic was raided by Montreal police. Several charges were laid, but it wasn't until 1973 that Morgentaler was arrested and charged with performing illegal abortions. He estimated he had performed 5,000 safe abortions by that time.
Though Morgentaler was acquitted by a jury, the decision was overruled a year later by the Quebec Court of Appeal. This was supported by the Supreme Court of Canada and he was served 10 months in jail. While Morgentaler was serving his sentence, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau created the Morgentaler Amendment, which changed the law so that a court could not overturn a jury acquittal. This granted Morgentaler a new trial. He was acquitted by a jury once again. Though Morgentaler kept being charged, he also kept getting acquitted.
In 1976 he tried to take the abortion laws to the Supreme Court of Canada, his attempts were unsuccessful. Morgentaler continued to perform and advocate for compassionate abortions while opening clinics across the country. In 1988 Morgentaler challenged the 1969 Abortion law as a violation of the newly created Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He won the case. Throughout the 1990s, Morgentaler continued his legal case for abortion across the provinces.
Morgentaler, his staff, his patients and his colleagues have all endured countless death threats over the years. Doctors who offer abortions have been murdered by anti-choice fanatics in the United States with several attempts on doctor's lives in Canada. In 1992 the Toronto Morgentaler clinic was even firebombed. Luckily, no one was injured and the clinic was able to operate at an alternative location.
Morgentaler has won numerous awards for his work from the Canadian Labour Congress and various universities. His most prestigious award came in 2008, when he was named a member of the Order of Canada.
There are now more than 20 of his clinics throughout Canada that complete almost half of the abortions done in the country. Though he retired from active practice in 2006, Morgentaler is now working on getting clinics in the Canadian artic to service women in remote areas.
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