Dr. Morgentaler and me

Ode to a fighter, survivor, lover of women and friend

Dr. Henry Morgentaler turns 84 on March 19, which is a gift for anyone, especially Canadian women, who benefit to this day from his achievement: the right to safe abortions. But it’s rather terrific for someone with, oh, a history, shall we call it? For this nice – and, dare I say it, sexy – man survived the most hideous times of the 20th century, including the Holocaust.

Astonishingly, he did it with his sense of humour intact. Even now, in a world where I fear for women’s rights more than ever, I, a pessimist, can laugh with Henry, an optimist. Henry and I, we have fun together.

Since we first met in Montreal in 2002 – I was reporting on the filming of a CTV docudrama about Henry’s fight against Canada’s abortion laws – Henry, often in his soft black leather Roots jacket and grey cashmere sweater, has taken me out to lunch once a month.

My first meal with Henry, at a Russian restaurant, brought me many firsts – my first shot of vodka, first caviar, first blini, first borscht. Raw vodka? Surely gasoline would be more civilized. “Go ahead,” Henry said. “Enjoy yourself.” Though I’m a feminist, I like it when he pays. I bring him gifts of books – mostly history and journalism. He likes Japanese food, I like French. I get irate about George W. Bush; he gets animated about women’s rights.

True, abortion is now legal nationwide. But the problem is access. It’s near impossible to obtain an abortion in New Brunswick, and in P.E.I., it is impossible – not in a hospital or a clinic, nothing. Such restrictions flagrantly violate the Canadian Health Care Act, which is indeed followed in other provinces. Women are being tormented by small-minded provincial health ministers, Henry says.

The topic inevitably comes up at our lunches, but mostly the Henry I know speaks broadly about, and enjoys, life. He takes great delight in people, especially women breaking the rules by being brave and vocal. Whether with vodka or other pleasures – and unlike many men – he is an enthusiastic giver of approval.

This is the mystery. How can Henry be happy? He grew up with anti-Semitic taunts in Lodz, Poland. He arrived by train at Auschwitz at age 19, the genocidal Nazi child-torturer Mengele judging him healthy enough to work but sending Henry’s mother to the gas chamber. I often think of the German soldier who approached Henry with a bucket of water.
“Jude?” he asked. Jew?
“Ja,” said Henry. Yes.
“Nein,” the soldier said. No. As in, no water for Jews. But Henry survived and came to Canada to become a GP and live a prosperous life, free of ghosts.

In 1959, the year of my birth, almost all abortion was illegal in Canada, so there were 33,000 illegal ones. Women were tortured and maimed in backstreet butcheries. Often they died. Henry first spoke publicly in 1967 about restrictive anti-abortion laws. After that, his women patients were begging him for help. Henry could not abandon desperate people – Nazis had done that – and he believed, as always, “Every child a wanted child.”

Henry performed abortions until his inevitable arrest. He was convicted, freed by juries whose verdicts were overturned by politicians, saw his clinics firebombed and raided, and finally, on January 28, 1988, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s anti-abortion law. Women were free to choose. Henry set up clinics across Canada, as have other doctors.

Recently, when I’d meet Henry, he’d be tired. He wasn’t well and had stopped performing abortions himself. He was only 90 per cent, he said, not good enough. After his heart surgery during last summer’s heat wave, I was desperately upset to see how thin he was. I sat next to his hospital bed and brought his stick-thin forearm against my heart, like a bird’s wing, holding it there to comfort me. Now Henry is back to his fighting weight. At a recent lunch, I was gloomy about George W. Bush. No change there. “Cheer up,” he said.

I still say, never take rights for granted. Last Christmas, our government introduced a bill that could have led to a renewed ban on same-sex marriage. It was defeated. But this was new, an attempt to withdraw a human right already won.

Will the government try the same thing with the freedom that Dr. Henry Morgentaler helped give us? Happy birthday, Henry. And women, guard your freedom well.