Yesterday, Dr. Henry Morgentaler died at age 90. A pioneer for Canada’s reproductive rights movement, Morgentaler openly defied the country’s restrictive abortion laws by opening clinics across the country, starting in Montreal in 1968.
He faced death threats, fire bombings and arrest — until eventually Canada’s abortion legislation was overturned in 1988.
Renowned author, and rabble.ca co-founder, Judy Rebick knew Morgentaler since 1982, when she became a spokesperson for his Toronto clinic. The next year, she prevented a garden shear-wielding man from attacking the physician, a clip widely broadcast at the time, and featured in the award-winning recent documentary on Canadian feminism, Status Quo.
David P. Ball: Maybe we could start out by talking about the Henry Morgentaler that you knew Judy, because you’ve known him for decades. What was it like to meet him? What were your earliest recollections?
Judy Rebick: I first met him in 1982. I had been part of a group here in Toronto that decided to try to reproduce the strategy that he had used in Quebec — in other words to open an illegal clinic, challenge the law, challenge it in the courts. It took him a little while; he was hesitant at first, but he agreed to do it… Where I got involved was we had a rally at a big place in Toronto. I M.C.-ed the rally and he was, of course, the main speaker. That’s the first time that I met him. He was so warm; he knew who I was, because I had already been speaking on the issue, and he just hugged me — and I wasn’t that much of a hugger then, so I was quite taken aback.
Then, at the end of the meeting, he said, ‘Judy, I would like you to be the spokesperson for the clinic; I like your energy.’ He didn’t know me at all, and I had never done any public work; I had never done any media work, for 10 years anyways. He really relied on his gut for things, and we discussed it and decided it would be good. One of the problems in Quebec had been that he had had a profile around the pro-choice movement, but no woman had that profile. So we decided that this way at least I would get a profile speaking for the clinic, and after that the media would tend to go to me as well as him, so we would have a feminist presence in the struggle, other than just through demonstrations. That did work, and I also learned a lot.
DB: What’s the biggest thing you think you learned from Henry?
JR: I think a couple things. I think I was already a pretty determined person, although his level of stick-with-it-ness, in spite of every kind of threat, losing money, going to jail, death threats — all those things — was pretty inspiring. But I think the main thing I learned from him was to keep an open heart, which was very hard for me to do at the time. He was a very warm and loving person.
One time, we had this huge fight – we often had fights because he was very stubborn… He said, ‘Judy, I know you’re making this argument because you think it’s best for the movement; and I hope that you know that I’m making this argument because I think it’s best for the movement. But the most important thing is that we stay friends.’ That was a revelation to me, because as you know on the Left, we don’t often take that sort of thing into consideration. The fact that my friendship was so important to him, and he said it in a very caring way, he realized how important relationships were to building the movement. He understood the importance of the movement, but he wasn’t part of the movement; he was very much an individual actor. I think I learned the most from that when I reflect on it… When I think about Henry in a personal way, that’s what I remember — his heart and how caring a person he was.
DB: I know you’ve spoken in other outlets about this, but in 1983 you managed to stop Henry getting stabbed with a pair of garden shears outside his Toronto abortion clinic. You jumped in the way. It’s also a scene in the movie based on your book ‘Ten Thousand Roses’ – ‘Status Quo‘. Could you talk about that day, what you remember?
JR: I was the spokesperson for the clinic, as I had mentioned. It was a media circus … There must have been 100 reporters there. We also had a small group to welcome Dr. Morgentaler. He arrived at three o’clock, and it was my job to escort him from across the street … through the crowds. We were chatting and laughing, but because of all the media there was a feeling in the air that something was going to happen. They were waiting for something to happen.
DB: A kind of energy?
JR: Yeah, you know that kind of energy. And out of nowhere, this guy runs along the street, because they had blocked it off … and he grabbed Henry. What I did, and I think it was just instinct, was pulled his hands off Henry, pushed him away, and then the other woman took Henry into the clinic so he’d be safe. Then I faced him — and that’s the bit you see in the clip — and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?!’ or something like that.
DB: Classic Judy style! Straight to the point.
JR: And I saw that he had garden shears. He raised them as if to stab me, and I put my arm up to block. But I could see in his eyes he wasn’t going to stab me, but still I was so angry, I really didn’t care. I really understood that day what it is to really lose your temper. I was in another state of consciousness, I was so angry that he dared to do this. I pushed him; I was yelling at him. Nobody came to help me. Our people couldn’t see over the media, but none of the media came to help me either. I understand that the camera guys want to get their shot, but there were a lot of print reporters there. When I asked people after, ‘Why didn’t you help me?!’ they said, ‘You didn’t look like you needed it!’…
I went to the back of the clinic, and one of the women who was a psychologist talked me down. Then I cried a little bit, and then felt the fear a little bit — what had just happened … Then I did, for the first time in my life, this round of media (interviews). I just did one after the other after the other. The coverage all had that clip, but they did it like the Kennedy assassination — they had Dr. Morgentaler’s car coming up, him coming out, then a circle around the guy with the garden shears. It was really funny, actually.
That night, I was staying with a friend, and Dr. Morgentaler called me and said, ‘Judy, you saved my life.’ Which I thought was a bit melodramatic, but anyway…
DB: That’s a wonderful story. Could you talk about, in the larger picture, what is the legacy of Morgentaler for the reproductive justice movement in Canada?
JR: I think (he’s) absolutely central. The obvious thing is, because of his fight, we have no abortion law in Canada — that’s no legal restriction on abortion. (Former Prime Minister Brian) Mulroney’s attempt to quash it failed, and so did the legal cases… to try and stop abortions. I’m more convinced than ever — we always say, ‘He needed the movement, and we needed him,’ because we needed a courageous doctor like he was, who was willing to give up everything to do this, and he really was, and also who was incredibly media savvy. He was fantastic in the media, and that was important too, because the coverage was incredible. You get some sense of that by seeing the coverage of his death of what it was like at the time. It was a huge story for years and years. We needed someone who was really good in the media…
But in the last day, I realized that it wasn’t just that. It was also that so many people were radicalized. There was a guest host on Q (CBC Radio) and she did the editorial, and said, ‘I was a 19-year old student, and I went to hear Dr. Morgentaler speak in London, and I never thought somebody could actually fight for something bigger than themselves and stand up on an issue. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember the effect it had on my life.’
Yesterday, when I heard (of his death), I was at a conference of educators. Several women came up to me and had tears in their eyes. They didn’t know him; they’d never met him, but they said, ‘Because of Dr. Morgentaler, I became an activist,’ or, ‘Because of Dr. Morgentaler, I became a feminist.’ So I think, because he was the character he was — a Holocaust survivor who could have had a comfortable life — but chose to put himself right out on the line for a cause, he really radicalized a lot of people.
Even though he was a man, which is ironic, he was really a lightning-rod for the women’s movement. As important as the women’s movement has been, it wasn’t a very in-the-streets movement; most of what we won, we won in other ways than demonstrations — except in the pro-choice movement. In the pro-choice movement, we were in the streets all the time, and not only in the streets, but direct action. This was a huge act of civil disobedience — a very sophisticated act of civil disobedience.
But also, we constantly had pickets in front of the clinic to defend women from the right-to-life (advocates), we had escorts. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘I was an escort at the Morgentaler Clinic.’ Basically, their job was to take women home. At first it was to avoid police harassment, and later it was to avoid anti-choice harassment. We wound up, just out of necessity, someone came up with this idea of escorts escorting women. We wound up with a cadre of people — women and men, mostly women — who were just so committed to the clinic that they were willing to stand up, to get arrested, to do whatever was necessary to defend the clinic.
In some ways, it was the height of the women’s movement, and we had a lot of good strategists in (the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics). Also, in a struggle, you get very creative, because you have to. I think we wound up organizing a very powerful movement, and right across the country. Oddly enough, his courage and his tenacity helped that to happen. It was like when Chief Theresa Spence went on her hunger strike: when somebody does something extraordinary – risks their life, risks their freedom – it inspires other people to get off their asses and idle no more. That’s what Dr. Morgentaler did, and in some ways that was his most important contribution.