Pro-lifers says his true legacy is millions of dead babies


Abortionist Henry Morgentaler

Pro-lifers reacted to the news that Canadian abortionist Henry Morgentaler died by reiterating they continue to pray for the man personally responsible for killing tens of thousands of babies in the womb.

For decades, Canadian pro-lifer leaders have prayed for Morgentaler’s conversion. Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that he has personally prayed for the abortionist since he began pro-life work and that CLC has long urged supporters to pray not only for Morgentaler’s victims – the women and children – but the man who preyed upon them. “If Bernard Nathanson can change his mind about abortion after killing 75,000 babies, Morgentaler could have, too,” Hughes said, noting that one of the leading abortionists in the United States became a leading pro-lifer in his final three decades.

Hughes said that Morgentaler should have repented his sins to both change the public debate and, more importantly, save his own soul. Hughes told of the time he met Morgentaler and told him that he, Hughes, was praying for him; Morgentaler replied that he did not think Hughes would see his prayers answered.

Natalie Hudson Sonnen said in a Life Canada press release that “the pro-life movement has always hoped and prayed for his conversion, and that hope did not die with his death.” She said she hoped Morgentaler had a death-bed conversion, that he “had a change of heart in his final moments.”

The New York Times noted that CLC urged supporters to pray after the story of Morgentaler’s death became public, but much of the media coverage hinted the pro-life movement was jubilant at the news. Hughes said such reporting never quoted actual pro-life groups or leaders, but hinted at emotional online comments on blogs and social media.

The media coverage either painted him as a heroic crusader for women’s rights or a man who divided the country in his pursuit to foist abortion on the country. The Globe and Mail editorial lauded Morgentaler’s “tenacious legal struggle” to strike down what their obituary called Canada’s “oppressive” abortion laws. He was feted as a defender of a “woman’s right to choose” and of “women’s right to control her own body” or “own reproduction.” The coverage tried, as much as possible, to avoid mentioning abortion. But as Andrea Mrozek, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, this was kind of a “dance to celebrate Morgentaler for introducing choice, without referring to the choice itself.” Mrozek said doing so was like “celebrating Steve Jobs, without ever once mentioning an Apple computer.”


Interim coverage of Morgentaler’s illegal Toronto abortuary in 1983.

Except that Morgentaler did not create computers or anything else; he destroyed. About Morgentaler’s true legacy, there is agreement within the pro-life movement: the dead child. Mrozek wrote, “it’s too convenient to simply ignore the life at the heart of the matter.” Hudson Sonnen said, “his legacy will live on as the man who pushed for the legalization of abortion in Canada, making him responsible for countless thousands of deaths of so many children.” Hughes said “Morgentaler trained abortionists in his methods of killing, did unbelievable damage to the future of this country, but worse of all, as a result, millions of unborn Canadians have been killed.”

Obituaries note Morgentaler’s eventful life. He was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923, and his family was forced into the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in the 1930s before being eventually split apart and sent to labour and concentration camps (Auschwitz and Dachau). He survived, although his parents and sister did not. Morgentaler was a teenager when the war was over, attended medical school in Germany, studied briefly in Belgium, and emigrated to Canada in 1950 after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Chava Rosenfarb. He studied medicine at the University of Montreal and set up a family practice.

According to Sandra Martin in the Globe and Mail, in the 1960s Morgentaler was feeling restless and after he “unsuccessfully tried to become a Freudian psychoanalyst” and he tried to fill the void joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal. Fully bilingual, he became spokesman for the Humanist Fellowship Association of Canada and testified on October 19, 1967 before the justice committee hearings on abortion. At the time, abortion was illegal but widely carried out not in the proverbial back alleys but in hospitals. Morgentaler and other abortion advocates painted a picture of tens of thousands of women dying from botched back alley abortions. He argued for the right to abortion-on-demand.

In 1969, Parliament passed the Trudeau government’s Omnibus Bill which included a provision that broadened abortion by keeping it technically illegal unless a hospital therapeutic abortion committee signed off on an abortion request. Morgentaler considered this abortion license too restrictive and dedicated his life to fighting any restriction on abortion.

And here is where his story becomes much more complicated and even a little murky.

Morgentaler was the subject of two fawning biographers.

Morgentaler was the subject of two fawning biographers.

According to Morgentaler’s first sympathetic biographer, Eleanor Wright Pelrine — in Morgentaler: The Doctor Who Couldn’t Turn Away (1975) — Morgentaler did not do abortions until after the law was changed. But according to his second sympathetic biographer, Catherine Dunphy – in Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero (1996) – Morgentaler carried out an abortion in 1968 on the teenage daughter of a close friend. Both claim that immediately upon testifying in 1967, he was inundated with requests for abortion when women heard that he supported liberalizing the law. Wright Pelrine reported that women would phone his office or wait outside the door of his practice, and not wanting to break the law, he referred them to doctors he knew who did commit abortions in violation of the law.

Whether or not he did illegal abortions before the law changed the strictures in 1969 is unclear. The penalty before the law changed was up to life in prison for the person who carried out an abortion request and up to two years in prison for the woman getting an abortion. After the law was changed, the penalty for doctors was reduced to two years.

Morgentaler argued that the therapeutic abortion committees, which were okaying tens of thousands of abortions annually, was an onerous burden on women and violated their rights to control their own bodies. He sought to challenge the law by openly breaking it. He shut down his family practice in 1969 and opened a private abortuary in east Montreal in 1969. He charged between $200 and $300 per abortion.

The street-front abortion mill was intended to flout the law, to convince police to charge him so he could challenge the law.

In June 1970, he was arrested and charged with two counts of procuring a miscarriage (an abortion). His case did not go to trial until 1973, at which time he boasted to the Canadian Women’s Coalition to Repeal the Abortion Law of carrying out more than 5,000 illegal abortions.

As his biographers and the obituaries noted, Morgentaler loved the spotlight and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the cause and the man. He ran as an independent in the 1972 federal election and while he garnered 1,509 votes, his poor showing resulted in the loss of his election deposit. On Mother’s Day in 1973, CTV’s W5 program aired an abortion taped at Morgentaler’s abortuary.

The Quebec jury acquitted him in November but a Quebec Court of Appeal overturned that decision. He was given an 18-month sentence and he served 10 months, including in a nursing home, after apparently suffering a heart attack in prison. Wright Pelrine reported that Morgentaler was a difficult prisoner and routinely disobeyed orders, considering himself loftier than the guards and officials because of his medical degree. He was released in January 1976 and soon again began doing illegal abortions.

He lost his license to practice in Quebec and the Quebec revenue department sent him a bill for $704,000 for the profit from illegal abortions that he bragged doing. He would later settle with the province, paying just over $100,000 in back taxes. In 1983, he would open illegal street-front abortuaries in Winnipeg and Toronto – and later in Edmonton, Fredericton, Halifax, and Ottawa.

He also divorced his wife, with whom he had two children. He would later remarry twice. He was a serial philanderer and Dunphy says in her biography that “he was a man who loved women and couldn’t be monogamous.” Morgentaler claimed that his many sexual relationships with women – he chastised Dunphy for not interviewing more mistresses – was rooted in the relationship with his mother, whom he believed did not love him. He said he spent his life looking for multiple women who would provide love and comfort so he would never be without love from a woman again.

He also mistreated women in his practice. In 1985, the Toronto Star reported that a woman identified as “Sylvia” was mistreated by Morgentaler during an abortion in Toronto. She changed her mind about having an abortion and pled with him not carry it out, but a female assistant held her down and thrust a sanitary napkin in her mouth to stop her from yelling. The woman told a local radio station, “she got the Kotex and put it in my mouth so I couldn’t scream.” Morgentaler is quoted by the Star saying police “intimated” and “coached” her in order to undermine his abortion practice.

In December 1974, the Montreal Gazette reported that police investigated whether Morgentaler threatened the health of women using his facilities by re-suing $3.30 Vacurettes. The maker of the disposable product, Bio-Engineering Inc., told both Morgentaler and police that the product was not meant to be used more than once, that doing so increased the risk of spreading disease, and the packaging warns “cannot be re-used.” Morgentaler told the Gazette “that whether someone uses a Vacurette once or twice has nothing to do with practicing good medicine.”

In a 1975 issue of The Uncertified Human, there is a story by journalist M. Charlebois who reported that she visited Morgentaler’s Montreal abortuary in 1973, and he attempted to carry out an abortion on her despite the fact she was not pregnant and told him she was under the age of 21. She explained that she went to Morgentaler’s because “my initial feeling was that (he) had no concern for the rights of the unborn, but as I became more involved, I came to the conclusion that he had no respect for the dignity of women and no concern for standards of health care either.” She finally convinced him to let her go, but when he found out that she was a journalist, he called her a “bitch.”

Hughes told The Interim that these practices show that “despite the rhetoric of fighting for women’s rights, Morgentaler had little regard for the health and safety of women.” He said that Morgentaler did abortions “because they were good for Morgentaler’s wallet, not because he cared for the well-being of women.”

In the 1980s, he was charged in Winnipeg and Toronto for doing illegal abortions. In his first Ontario trial in 1984, a jury acquitted him. Later that year he was charged again on Dec. 20, but resumed abortions three weeks later. His abortuary on Harboard Street was the site of numerous pro-life demonstrations and eventually the police were arresting the picketers.

Pro-lifers charged that from the jury selection process (which weeded out those who went to church and mothers with large families) to the timid prosecution, the dice had been cast in Morgentaler’s favour. Years later, lawyer Alan Cooper, who was the Crown counsel in the case, admitted to the Globe and Mail that he felt the restrictions on abortion needed to be challenged, saying “I believed that then and I still believe that if a person wants an abortion, that is her business.”

The Ontario Court of Appeals overturned the jury acquittal and the case was taken to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, in a 5-2 decision, the majority threw out the abortion law because the therapeutic abortion committees were arbitrary and demeaning to women. Only one of the seven judges who heard the case, Justice Bertha Wilson, said there was a right to abortion, and the majority sent the issue back to Parliament. Hughes said the Supreme Court “never created or recognized a right to abortion, and abortion advocates have lied when they say the Morgentaler decision established abortion rights in Canada.”

Parliament took up the issue of abortion under Mulroney but the bill, which would have allowed abortion on demand under the guise of permitting it only for health of the mother exceptions, was defeated by a tie vote in the Senate in 1991.

Morgentaler was largely shunned by the medical establishment and even by some abortion activists. Norma Scarborough, a founder of CARAL, refused to attend a Morgentaler birthday party because she found the abortionist dislikable. But he did more than divide his profession and his cause. He divided Canada.

The effort to rehabilitate his reputation began with the honorary doctorate at the University of Western Ontario in 2005. A large benefactor rewrote his will to deny the university a $2 million bequest, 15,000 people signed a petition against the honor, and 350 pro-lifers picketed the university.

Supporters of abortionist Henry Morgentaler long sought to get official approval of their hero. In 2005, the University of Western Ontario bestowed him with an honorary doctorate (right) and after a long campaign, in 2008, the Governor General, Michaelle Jean, gave Morgentaler the Order of Canada (right.

Supporters of abortionist Henry Morgentaler long sought to get official approval of their hero. In 2005, the University of Western Ontario bestowed him with an honorary doctorate (right) and after a long campaign, in 2008, the Governor General, Michaelle Jean, gave Morgentaler the Order of Canada (right.

Three years later, Governor General Michaelle Jean awarded Morgentaler the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in the country. Previous attempts led by author June Callwood and Pierre Burton failed, but in 2008 Jean, on the advice of a council led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin, bestowed the medal on Morgentaler. CLC sponsored a poll by KLR Vu that found 56 per cent of Canadians objected to Morgentaler receiving the OC, more than 70 MPs spoke out against the decision, and at least 17 previous honorees returned their Order of Canada in protest. Hughes said, “the decision was obviously very divisive and clearly many Canadians opposed honoring a man whose self-appointed job was to kill unborn children for profit.”

When Morgentaler died, he was praised by left-wing politicians. NDP women’s critic Niki Ashton and justice critic Francoise Boivin said, “today we lost a great man … he gave help to many women, and thanks to his actions, they were free to exercise their fundamental right to choose for themselves.” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau tweeted that he was “sad to hear of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death. A crusader for women’s reproductive freedom, his contributions will be remembered.”  Former Ontario NDP premier and federal Liberal leader Bob Rae said he “knew Henry very well” and that “he ended generations of repression and generations of hypocrisy” and “we are better off as a country for the courage he showed.” The Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion honoring Morgentaler as a champion of women’s rights and providing a moment of silence.

Henry Morgentaler addresses the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League in an undated photo.

Henry Morgentaler addresses the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League in an undated photo.

The media and opposition decried the federal government’s refusal to make any statement about Morgentaler, with cabinet ministers rushing past cameras with their heads facing the floor as they tried to escape the scrums. The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti complained that “a deafening silence hung over Ottawa … a vacuum that should have been filled with words of praise.”

Renzetti was incredulous that Morgentaler’s opponents did not acknowledge “the way he changed history and improved Canadian women’s lives.” Hughes laughed at the suggestion, saying that “before and after Morgentaler, abortion supporters fail to recognize the humanity of the child in the womb and that the issue is not ‘choice’ but the ‘choice to kill an unborn child’.” Hughes said that Canada is worse off because of Morgentaler’s agitation to change abortion laws and the abortions he himself committed. The Montreal Gazette quotes a Morgentaler estimate of personal carnage of 80,000 abortions and the CBC reported that Morgentaler’s facilities were once responsible for 1,000 abortions a week.

The Morgentaler legacy, Hughes said, “is the millions of dead babies he either personally tore from their mother’s wombs or was instrumental in by agitating for legal changes.” To state the obvious, Hughes said “it is not a legacy worth celebrating, but we must never forget the terrible toll he wrought, and pray for the damage to be fixed in Henry’s soul, the women’s bodies he maimed, the babies he killed, and the Canada he diminished.”