Henry Morgentaler and the Fight for Reproductive Freedom in the Canadian State

The crusading pro-choice doctor, Henry Morgentaler, died in Toronto, May 29, 2013 at the age of 90. His death came three months after the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Supreme Court decision striking down Canada`s federal abortion law. That victory for women`s reproductive rights was the product of more than 20 years of struggle in which Dr. Morgentaler played a key role.

Born in 1923, Morgentaler grew up in Lodz, Poland, the son of trade union organizer affiliated to the Socialist Jewish Bund. In 1939, at the age of 16, his family was thrown into the maelstrom of the Nazi occupation and the impending Judeocide. Morgantaler`s father perished early on and so subsequently, did his mother and sister. But Henry and his brother managed to survive their internment at Aushwitz and Dachau.

Morgentaler emigrated to Canada in 1950, settling in Montreal.  In doing so, he chose to throw in his lot with a country and a province still rife with anti-semitic prejudice. Israel did not attract the young Morgentaler, and in this sense he took his stand with the tradition of Jewish universalism rather than with the exclusivity and colonial ambitions that underlay the Zionist project.

Having completed his medical studies in French at Université de Montréal, Henry established a practice in the working class east-end of the city. There, he encountered the burden of unwanted pregnancy and the desperation of women who sought to end it. He re-oriented his practice first to contraception, and then began to perform abortions in his clinic in defiance of the law. He had earlier joined the Humanist Society and became a prominent public pro-choice advocate.

In 1970, his clinic was raided and he was arrested. Consecutive trials resulted in jury acquittals, until the jury verdicts were overturned by the Supreme Court and he was sent to prison. During his 10 month incarceration, he suffered a heart attack. Upon his release, he returned to providing abortions, finally securing an amnesty in 1976 from the first Parti Quebecois government. Thereafter, doctors performing abortions in free-standing clinics were granted immunity, rendering the federal law null and void in Quebec.

On the basis of that hard-won victory in his home province, Morgentaler launched an offensive in English-speaking Canada in the mid-1980`s, opening clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. He continued to defy the state and powerful anti-choice forces until his Supreme Court victory in 1988.

Canada is one of a handful of countries in which access to abortion is not constrained by law. Access is still restricted because of geographic or funding disparities. Nevertheless, the 1988 judgment represented a great advance for women`s physical and mental health and has produced a generation who regard abortion as an established right for all women.

One could criticize Morgentaler`s limited political perspectives or his personality quirks, but he was a true hero willing to sacrifice for a cause in which he and millions of others believed. His life is testimony to the important role exceptional individuals can play in history. At the same time, most of the commentary that greeted his death has given short shrift to the social and political factors that came together to make this breakthrough for reproductive rights possible.

At the very time that Morgentaler was establishing himself professionally in Montréal,  Quebec was on the cusp of a national and class awakening that shook the foundations of Anglo-Canadian domination that  had prevailed for almost  two hundred years. Not the least of the many facets of this rebellion, was the determination of Quebecois women to throw off the yoke of the patriarchal system supervised by the Roman Catholic Church that was an integral part of their national oppression. To this day, conservative religious forces have been unable to restore their former ideological authority, including in matters of sexuality and gender oppression.

The arrival of so-called second wave feminism was an absolutely critical factor in the abortion rights struggle in Canada and Quebec. A key initiative was the 1970 Abortion Caravan, culminating in 35 women chaining themselves to the gallery benches of the House of Commons. In Canada, as elsewhere, the women comrades of the organizations affiliated to the Fourth International were important builders of the abortion rights campaigns. During the contestation of the 1980`s, a socialist feminist leadership schooled in that tradition, successfully fought for two important positions: the insistence on mass action in the streets to counter the anti-choice mobilisations, and the importance of defending the clinics from anti-choice harassment . These tactics were advanced not against, but parallel to the lobbying efforts of the mainstream pro-choice organizations and Morgentaler`s own legal challenge. Thus the unity of the movement was preserved at the same time as a mass response to the right-wing offensive was put into operation.

Socialist feminists took the struggle as well into the main institutions of the labour movement, notably the Ontario Federation of Labour and the New Democratic Party (NDP).  Bringing the labour movement on side helped shift the balance of forces in English-speaking Canada where there is a partial but nonetheless significant political polarisation along class lines.

In the end these factors were critical: the removal of Quebec as a reactionary backwater and the rapid embrace by the vast majority of Quebecois of unrestricted access to abortion, coupled with a more polarised atmosphere in the Rest of Canada with powerful anti-choice forces but also a strong pro-choice response driving a wedge through society.  These were sufficient to shift the consensus in Canada`s highest court and to break the resolve and ability of the bourgeois parties to keep some sort of statutory limitation on women’s right to choose.

In this respect, women in Canada and Quebec are in advance of their sisters in the United States and Mexico. On this issue at least, the relationship of forces is more favourable north of the 49th parallel, reflecting weaknesses in the Canadian bourgeois state.

However, no social advance is safe in this crisis-ridden epoch of capitalist decay. The failure of the NDP and the labour movement to challenge the offensive by the employer class have produced an aggressively right wing government with a majority in parliament.  The religious right figure prominently in the Conservative Party.  Anti-choice forces are re-grouping, ever alert to tactics which would erode the right to choose.

Harper’s political instincts tell him a frontal assault on abortion rights is to be avoided.  He keeps the anti-choice zealots in his caucus on a tight leash. But he has permitted a number of private member’s bills to see the light of day. The latest of these takes aim against the phantasm of sex-selective pregnancy termination, trading on racist stereotypes about Asian parents. Of course, over 95% of abortions in Canada are performed before the sex of the fetus can even be ascertained. Of the remaining, almost all are terminations for genetic anomalies.

The anti-choice forces purport to defend women, laying a trap for the unwary. They are searching for potential wedges with which to pry open the lid that was closed to them in 1988, while hiding their true agenda which remains the obliteration of women’s reproductive rights.

Harper pretends to be above the fray. In reality, he offers a platform to the anti-choice zealots. In the international arena he has withdrawn funding from any organizations that include safe abortion in the measures they advocate for improving women’s reproductive health. And the anti-woman agenda of the Tories is further underlined by its cancellation of the universal child care program, abandonment of pay equity legislation, cuts to funding of dozens of womens’ groups and refusal to hold a public inquiry into missing aboriginal women.

It is always more difficult to defend a social advance that is taken for granted even though it enjoys widespread support. That is the case with abortion rights in Canada today, including in Quebec.

How can we counter the renewed right-wing anti-choice offensive?

If the struggle of the women’s movement and Henry Morgentaler teaches us anything, it is the importance of mass action, of not ceding the streets or public platforms to a powerful and ideologically motivated enemy.

Socialists want to see all abortions funded under medicare and oppose any move toward de-funding. That includes opposing the exclusion of refugee claimants from abortion coverage, part of Ottawa’s shameful attack on refugee health rights.

We support making abortion services more accessible for rural and geographically isolated women and in the meantime covering travel costs to centres where abortion is available.

For free access to safe abortion in all countries. Solidarity with women internationally, struggling for maternal health rights which includes abortion.

Take the defense of abortion rights once again into the unions and the NDP,  the mobilisation of whose ranks was so integral to past advances.

Robbie Mahood is a leading member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste in Montreal. He is a former physician abortion provider in Winnipeg and Montreal.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler

Advertisements