The University of Western Ontario resembled more an armed camp under siege than a place of higher learning when Henry Morgentaler’s honourary degree roadshow rolled into London, Ont., June 16.
At least five dozen police officers ringed the area around the university’s Alumni Hall as Morgentaler received the honourary doctor of laws degree before about 1,200 graduates and their relatives. Outside, police and security officials erected metal barricades along the laneway about 50 metres from the hall doors to keep out about 600 protesters taking part in the Campaign Life Coalition- organized demonstration, as well as along the heavily travelled Western Road.
Morgentaler was evidently escorted in and out a back door to avoid confronting the protesters.
The day capped months of rancour and maneuvering both within and outside the university community, as plans were unveiled to bestow the recognition on Canada’s most notorious abortionist. More than 12,000 people, including many students and alumni, had signed an internet petition against the award and some estimates have placed the loss to the university treasury, through lost donations and bequests, in the tens of millions of dollars.
Also, on the day Morgentaler received his honourary degree, London Catholic School board director of education Joseph Rapai instructed high schools in the district to have students observe a minute of silence. Rapai also requested Catholic high schools across the province to do likewise to join them in remembering the more than 2 million aborted babies in Canada since 1969.
Bishop Ronald Fabbro of the diocese of London urged his parish priests to speak on the issue and encourage congregants to attend the pro-life witness at UWO. On graduation day, Bishop Fabbro said Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral where he recognized and encouraged the work of pro-lifers.
The university’s administration remained intransigent to the end, however, and even greeted Morgentaler with glowing words as he stepped forward to accept the degree.
Vice-president Greg Moran, while curiously reminding those in the audience that debate is “a key element in a liberal education” and “important to the formation of a strong society,” claimed: “If we are to sustain and evolve a humane, caring and tolerant society within such diversity, we will rely on open, courageous, respectful and civil debate. We could ask for no better example of the practice and success of such methods.”
Morgentaler, as has been his custom in public speeches, referred again to his and his family’s experiences in Nazi concentration camps and trotted out his well-worn claim that the abortion of unwanted children has lowered the crime rate and led to a caring and safer society. In an earlier interview in the Globe and Mail newspaper, he told reporter Caroline Alphonso: “I do believe, even if it may not sound modest, that I deserve this degree.”
The hundreds outside Alumni Hall took issue with that boast. At least six UWO professors – four in full academic regalia – joined the protesters. Professor David Stanford, of the Department of Statistical & Actuarial Sciences, bemoaned “the current of political correctness” that is pervasive at Western and said it was “extremely sad” that his university would choose to honour an individual such as Morgentaler. He said it was necessary to stand in solidarity and witness to life. Speaking from personal experience, he noted that his sister almost killed herself three decades ago from grief over an abortion she underwent.
Philosophy Professor Thomas M. Lennon, who has worked on campus for 37 years and received numerous awards of his own in that time, said he “couldn’t fathom the intentions of the university” and characterized the Morgentaler honour as “a silly political event.” He noted that whereas his association with Western was once a source of pride, it is now one of shame.
He also said he was disappointed by the insensitivity shown by the university’s administration at the moral stance of a significant segment of the student population.
Sociology Professor Paul Whitehead predicted that because of the backlash, he didn’t think the university “will make a stupid decision like that again.” He added he felt badly for the students and parents who didn’t want to be present for the controversial event.
Philosophy Professor Dennis Hudecki (nephew of the late, great pro-life MP Dr. Stan Hudecki) was also present in full regalia.
Sister Mary Frances Dorschell, a French instructor at the affiliated Brescia College, said students at her school were free to be excused from classes to attend the protest.
Many young people were evident among the throngs outside the barricades, joined by those toward the middle and older ends of the spectrum, as well as by representatives of entities such as Campaign Life Coalition and Show the Truth. The latter group’s explicit images of aborted preborn babies prompted one radio reporter to tell his station during a live broadcast: “These graphic signs are difficult even for a crusty old guy like me to look at.”
A new pro-life group, London-based Truth and Love for Life, caused a sensation when about a dozen of its young members showed up garbed in funeral black and carrying a wooden casket topped by a tiny pair of shoes and a banner proclaiming that more than two million unborn Canadians have been killed by legalized abortion. Media cameras swarmed the group for images.
Nikki Cooke, spokesman for CLC London, said she was “very pleased” with the turnout on a weekday that began with steady rain and very cool temperatures. She also expressed pleasure with the large numbers of young people who turned out.
“We are here as the voice for the preborn, because they have no voice,” she said. “An unborn deer has more rights. The university’s reputation has been tainted.”
Steve May, whose son graduated at the convocation, told The Interim he was disappointed that, at an institution allegedly dedicated to higher learning, Morgentaler’s speech “honoured abortion” and didn’t deal at all with the education of students. “The whole day has been about him,” he said. “His very presence is an affront to Christians.”
May said Morgentaler outlined why he became a humanist and cited as a main reason the fact that the ideology offers no claims to the supernatural.