Morgentaler, A Difficult Hero

By Catherine Dunphy

Random House Canada, 1996

474 pages, $32

Book Review

A child is born in the ghetto. His parents are socialist, atheist. They belong to a despised race. At school the child is taunted and reviled. He is a very clever child.

Soldiers of a brutal invading army come and seal hi ghetto, then routinely break the inhabitants through violence and deprivation. The child’s father is taken and killed. The family is taken to an extermination camp. On arrival, his mother is murdered. Then for several years, the child and his brother survive barely, living like animals, as their captives work them to the point of death.

Catherine Dunphy puts much flesh on these bare bones, but essentially you know the first two decades of Henry Morgentaler’s existence.

Early History

The young man has not been broken. He vows to become a doctor. In Germany, in Belgium, and then in the New World, in Canada, he struggles and studies, and by sheer force of will achieves his goal. He opens a general practice in a working-class part of Montreal. He has married his childhood sweetheart, Chava, herself the survivor of a death camp. They have a child.

Catherine Dunphy is an excellent writer, and she brings the breath of life to the pages where we watch Dr. Morgentaler wrestle his dream out of the nightmare that so long had ripped at his flesh.

Had his story ended then, one might read of it and draw from it important lessons in guts, resilience, and determination.

But it didn’t end there. Like many a man before him, he had made the steep and treacherous climb to his mountain top and found there only emptiness. Profession, family, comfort and a safe obscurity were poison. This void was there and he did not know how to fill it. And he has never found out. For the next 50 years, he would try and find some meaning to life: in the arms of numerous lovers, with Freudian therapy, Primal Scream, at Club Med, in passing flirtations with drugs, more wives, more money, more fine meals, more distinguished vintages.

We see the young physician’s eye fall upon an ad in the newspaper for a talk some humanist is giving. He attends. Humanism seizes him and has never let go. His life means something again. He casts around for a crusade, and after a false start, he chooses abortion. The merest glance as he flipped through the local paper was the death-knell for thousands of unborn children.

Guts, resilience and determination. In those early days – it must be said – Morgentaler had them in spades. Nobody else dared to take on the system. By rights he should have been swatted away like a gnat. He stood to lose everything. By merest fluke, the governments and legislative bodies he faced over the years turned out to be cowards, or moral bankrupts, or both. He was brave and wrong. He fought the bad fight.

His personal life has been a shambles. As you wade through the last two-thirds of this thick book, as a fly on the wall at fund-raisers, hearings, trials, and strategy sessions, you find yourself desperate for anecdote to spice up what is a rather dull narrative.

We see author Dunphy ruminating: “late at night as my child and I rocked on the ladderback chair, I would think about abortion. I would think, ‘what if I had?’ and shudder. That was not the point of course; it was never the point of the struggle for choice. The issue was always one of having a wanted child.”

We see Dunphy take in a procedure. Henry aborts a stripper. A brief vignette of evil at its most banal.

Morgentaler makes a bit of a fool of himself at a party in his honour

‘Modest meal’

I could go on. Anybody who reads this biography will find enough tasty morsels to make at least a modest meal. But I recommend you save your money. Since he started on his abortion journey each year has been the same as the last. Names change and places vary. But he is the same Henry Morgentaler. He is dull, gray and unpleasant. He grinds out appetites like some worker on a conveyor belt.

Morgentaler has suffered two recent strokes. His life is guttering. The black seeds sown in his childhood sprouted inside him and choked anything good.

The book stands as tally and testament on his days on earth. A careful reader will sit back at some point and realize with a sudden jolt that every wife he shucks off is himself, every lover despoiled him also. When he struggled it was against Henry Morgentaler, and each abortion aborted him.

He never had a chance. Pray for him.