And so, at the age of 90, Henry Morgentaler has died in his bed, an old man and full of years. Each death is a tragedy, a kind of promise broken with the mystery of life, and we at The Interim mourn Morgentaler’s passing. His life was precious; every life is precious. But, upon the grave of one who left so many cradles empty, we lay no flowers, and shed our tears, instead, for the mothers he maimed and babies he killed.
From a distance, Morgentaler’s career resembles that of a social justice activist: a law-breaker at the vanguard of radical social change, he became, in the fullness of time, a celebrated hero. And, from the steady stream of encomiums which have greeted his death, one would be forgiven for thinking that this outlaw turned Order-of-Canada-inductee was, indeed, a hero, so fulsome have the media’s praises been.
Yet the ugly paradox of Morgentaler’s specific line of work is inescapable. While any justification of the brutal practice of abortion is little more than a self-serving delusion, everyone can agree on this, at least: that, left alone, a pregnancy will result in a birth; that abortion prevents the arrival of a child. Thus, the memorialss for the late abortionist are ironic. He is being remembered by the very posterity that he himself so greatly diminished. His name echoes down the streets he emptied.
Morgentaler, however, did not simply prevent life; he dealt death, and he did so to innocent, unborn children. Whether he was disposing of the inconvenient consequences of upper class dalliances or committing preemptive euthanasia against socioeconomic undesirables (lowering the crime rate, as he once bragged), his proprietary cure-all was amazingly effective. Morgentaler was, indeed, a doctor – but the medicine he prescribed was death itself.
Our culture is not unique in its use of death as a panacea; the practices of infant abandonment and sacrificial violence are well documented even among the most enlightened ancients. In fact, death’s first grim appearance among men is in the context of sacrifice: when Cain kills his brother, the reality of mortality suddenly dawns.
Since Abel’s murder, human life must be measured in counted days. But, since that first murder, there have been two countervailing attitudes towards death. From Cain, we have the evil, ugly, tribal attitude which sees the end of life as something to be inflicted on others – Morgentaler was only its most recent representative. However, from the first fratricide, a new kind of community emerges as well: what the poet calls “the heavenly fellowship/ Of men that perish”.
The shadow of death hangs over everyone. In the Iliad, Homer gives Achilles the epithet, “son of Peleus,” to remind us that even the all-but-invulnerable warrior is born of a father, and is, therefore, mortal like us all. And Walter Pater, channeling Victor Hugo, writes: “We are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve.” But, since this sentence of death is one we all share, our fragile lives become bound together in a brotherhood of the condemned. The curse which makes us mortal also makes us one.
Morgentaler, however, made his career by forging a different sort of unity. He made new life the enemy of our life, and turned our progeny into the unwanted, the overpopulate, the inhuman clump-of-cells. He made us afraid of our children, convinced us that they would commit crimes, eat our bread, or simply limit our fun. And, in order to stave off the dark prophecies of our downfall, he made himself an insatiable Saturn, devouring our children so that we might live. Of the blessing of posterity, he made a curse, turning father against daughter, and mother against son. Doctors, of all people, should not opiate us with such illusions of immortality – illusions that turn children into so many symptoms to be suppressed.
Morgentaler ought to have learned this in Auschwitz and Dachau, the concentration camps where he was interred by the Nazis in his youth. Morgentaler should have seen that Hilter’s insane dream of a thousand-year, deathless Reich was perfectly embodied in the camp itself: the illusion of an everlasting kingdom on earth that leads only to a dirty butcher shop where bodies are cleaved from souls.
But it appears that Morgentaler learned a different lesson at Dachau: his “clinics” became places where life was, likewise, held cheap, and where death was used as a remedy as well. In his adopted home of Canada, Morgentaler put the Nazi’s terrible method into the service of a different myth. The Nazis promised power and strength through racial purity; Morgentaler promised pleasure and liberation through the sacrifice of procreation’s precious fruit. Both enterprises produced only unspeakable bloodshed; one is still practiced in Canada today.
Man’s only link to the future is through offspring. His children are, indeed, a form of “natural immortality” through whom he continues to live after the sun of his own life has set, and the light goes from his eyes. Morgentaler himself was a link in life’s continuum; yet, for reasons all his own, this survivor of the Holocaust made it his mission to diminish our reach into the future, laying waste to the weakest lives of all.
And so, death has come for the abortionist. Just as we have been diminished by the loss of the numberless children whom he killed, so too are we diminished by the loss of Henry, our brother. As Cain discovered, murder does not dissolve the gentle bonds of confraternity; Morgentaler, a man like us, has gone before us into the great mystery of death with which we all are always adjacent, to lie down in the earth with his fathers’ fathers. We hope his trespasses have been forgiven, just as we hope our own will be as well. But how many, many souls will he meet, on that far shore – souls whom he sent there by his own hands?