Interview With Dr. Henry Morgentaler

October 4 1976

Interview With Dr. Henry Morgentaler

October 4 1976

Interview With Dr. Henry Morgentaler

In the emotional, often bitter debate over abortion law in Canada, Montreal physician Dr. Henry Morgentaler has become a symbol for those who argue that the decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy should be left to a woman and her doctor. Nearly three years ago, Morgentaler, a survivor of Nazi death camps during World War II, was acquitted of performing an illegal abortion, but was sent to prison anyway by the Quebec Court of Appeal. Now, for the third time, a Montreal jury has refused to convict Morgentaler (see Canada section) and by so doing has once again focused attention on the anomalies of the present law. Earlierthisyear, Morgentaler was interviewed for Maclean’s by Luana Parker, who found him surprisingly charitable and convinced of the rightness of his actions.

Maclean’s: Has the experience of being in prison and the struggle you have had in the last couple of years broken you? Do you regret your decision? Has it been worthwhile? Morgentaler: I haven’t been broken. I’ve been wounded, but I’m recovering slowly. Do I regret the decision? No, mostly because I was able to help so many people. If I had to die now I would die knowing that my life was worthwhile, that I had done something in my life to help people, help which no one else could have or would have given in those circumstances. Maclean’s: Would you do it again? Morgentaler: That’s hard to say. If I had known beforehand all the suffering I would have to go through, the arbitrary awesome power the state can bring to bear upon an individual to break him, to bring him to his knees, maybe I wouldn’t have. I don’t know. I was confident that not only would I not go to jail but that what I was doing was in the highest traditions of medical practice, that is to offer a helping hand in a competent way to people asking for it. If you were near a lake, would you extend a helping hand to a drowning person, even if there would be a law saying you may not extend a helping hand? Many were drowning in the sense that they were willing to go to any lengths to obtain an abortion, legal or not legal, by “quacks” or even by themselves, with a great risk to life and health. I was just offering a helping hand, and I was sure that no court, no jury, would convict me for such an act. In a sense I was right. When I explained to the jury at length what my motivations were, what my practice was, how I came to my decision, they understood very well.

Maclean’s: What were your feelings

when you finally ended up in jail then? Morgentaler: It seemed unwarranted. It was so unexpected. I was shocked and stunned. But the logical thing to do, of course, was accept the consequences of my act, and this is what I did. I did not set out to be a martyr. I set out to help people. But if I had to sacrifice my freedom for a cause in which I believe, well so be it.

Maclean’s: What was it like in jail? I know you had some very depressed times. Were there any happy moments?

Morgentaler: There’s usually a period of adjustment, the shock of incarceration.


You notice that you’re cut off from your family, your friends, from your usual surroundings. You are depersonalized. Your clothing is taken away. You become a number. It reminded me of the concentration camp experience, which brought about feelings of dejection, sadness, despondency. But after two weeks or so you adjust. There are things which compensate. There are a lot of young people, and everyone has a different story to tell. In my particular case, there were moments in jail when I felt quite good. I was getting along splendidly with most of the prisoners. I got

interested in prisoners’ rights. I organized a petition at Bordeaux Jail for very modest demands.

Maclean’s: Like conjugal visits? Morgentaler: That was added to attract the attention of the media, but I think it’s a good idea. There is no reason why people deprived of their freedom should also be deprived of sex, especially those who are married or have girl friends whom they go out with steadily. But the other demands were very modest, like having contact visits. In Bordeaux Jail you are separated from your visitor by a glass partition, and you can’t even touch hands. The terrible thing about prison is that it is so dehumanizing. Most of these people are there only for two years, for small offenses, and the idea is that they should be reintegrated into society. But it’s hard to see how you can reintegrate someone into society when you make him a robot of a person. In a sense, I was fighting for my own dignity as a person, as a prisoner, and for the dignity of the other prisoners: that was the idea of the petition. The prisoners liked me. The authorities didn’t.

Maclean’s: Is it true that you had given abortions to several cabinet ministers’ and judges’ wives, daughters, mistresses? Morgentaler: It is true that I gave abortions to wives and daughters and mistresses of veiy' prominent people. I have not kept a list, but I think it just underscores the hypocrisy. Some of these same people would stand up on a public forum and denounce abortion and then behind the scenes they would send someone close to them to a clinic where they knew this person would get a safe medical abortion. Maclean’s: When you were in Bordeaux, you wrote some depressed, almost bitter poems wondering why all the women you had helped were now strangely silent. Morgentaler: It’s as if they had forgotten that I risked my freedom to help them. Many of them may have felt compassion for me but thought they could not do anything. As a matter of fact, I received a number of very moving letters from patients. It was a great help. Now women often come up and shake my hand and say, “We want to thank you for all you’ve done for women.”

Maclean’s: Does that make it seem worthwhile?

Morgentaler: I was able to help people, and I think this is what medicine is all about, really. What I deplore is the fact that what should be viewed as a medical service is still surrounded by this aura of criminality. So many women are still

victimized. After a while, after my initial decision to do abortions. I realized that the new method I had developed and perfected was so good that it was a scandal that women across Canada were not able to use it. I announced publicly that I was doing abortions. I even performed an abortion on national TV to show that such a method does exist, that it’s simple. It can be done in a medical clinic on an ambulatory basis without hospitalization, without general anaesthesia, with a very quick recovery. It was a coincidence that it was shown on Mother’s Day, 1973. and those people who were against abortion thought it was a kind of provocation.

Maclean’s: How do you feel about your opponents, the Right to Lifers.

Morgentaler: I respect those people who for religious or other reasons are against abortions. What I resent is the fact that there is a very small fanatical minority so strongly against abortion that they want to impose their idea of morality on the whole of the population through the criminal law.

Maclean’s: Does it make you angry when people say you made a lot of money doing abortions?

Morgentaler: From the start I set myself a maximum. At first it was $300. Then it was $200.1 had patients who offered to pay me almost as much as I would have liked, but I said no. Once the maximum was set at $200, nobody paid more than $200. Maclean’s: What proportion of patients paid the maximum?

Morgentaler: That is very hard to say. There were days when almost nobody paid the full amount. It was widely known that my policy was not to refuse anybody because of inability to pay. Consequently I was getting referrals from many of the social agencies that were taking care of the poor, unmarried mothers, people on welfare, mothers with many children, and so on.

Maclean’s: Did you ever do any abortions for nothing?

Morgentaler: Oh yes, many.

Maclean’s: Did you ever turn anybody away?

Morgentaler: I never turned anyone away for money, but have I refused anyone? Yes. First of all. my method itself was good only up to 12 weeks, and when I examined a woman and found that she was over 12 weeks I referred her to a hospital or the United States. Some women were refused because they were not sure that they really wanted the abortion. If they hesitated, I would usually discuss it with them. They had to be sure that they really wanted it. Maclean’s: How do you feel, after talking about abortion for several years and giving God knows how many interviews? Are you a little tired of the whole subject? Morgentaler: Yes. I wish I could start talking about something else for a change. I’ve been campaigning for about nine years. The point I want to make—and I think it is a very important point—is that the method

of ambulatory abortion by vacuum suction is simple and safe, but many doctors don’t know about it. Here I was sitting in my clinic with what I considered to be a tremendous method which was so safepeople walking out healthy, smiling, joyous, grateful—and for some reason, for some quirk in the law. Canadian women were not able to take advantage of it. What puzzles me is that people are afraid it’s going to be conveyer belt abortion. It’s as if some people for some reason would be afraid that the operation was too simple, too easy. It’s as if there’s a hidden bias that women, if they have to have an abortion, have to suffer, have to undergo agonies and pain for their sin. It’s a very punishing attitude.

Maclean’s: But your opponents felt that no


matter how aesthetic it was and how little pain was involved that it was murder. Morgentaler: There are some people who believe that the earth is flat. There are people with all kinds of beliefs. There’s not much you can do about that. I think the important thing in society is to respect somebody else’s beliefs. I don’t mind if people are against abortion. But I invite them to practise what they preach. If a woman is against abortion, it’s not for me to question her motive, religious, personal or whatever. I would defend her right not to have an abortion if someone wanted to impose it on her. I think it is her right to decide whether a pregnancy should continue or not. But I do not think it is her right to impose her views on any other woman who may decide that an abortion is the re-

sponsible and the right thing to do at the time.

Maclean’s: How do you deal with the problem of when the fetus becomes viable? Does that worry you at all?

Morgentaler: I did a great deal of research and study on it. It is clear to me that at the beginning stages of conception you are not dealing with a baby. There is no baby there. There are a few cells with different shapes, and more cells are added up, and so on and so on. It is only around five months that you could say, well, here we have an entity that possibly could be considered a baby. But up to five months it is such a small entity that it is definitely not a baby. You can call it a project.

Maclean’s: Did this depress you at all? Morgentaler: No. Usually, you are dealing with a situation where a woman has decided that she does not want this embryo to become a human being. This is not a decision against motherhood per se, because half the women who have abortions are mothers already and the other half want to become mothers later. A well done abortion ensures that they will be able to. A woman who has an abortion by a quack very often becomes sterile and can’t procreate later on. If you consider all the possible consequences, the danger of quack abortions or self-done abortions, the danger of suicide if a woman has to go through a compulsive pregnancy, has to give up a baby to an institution, the possibility that that baby, because of the frustrations in an institution, may become a juvenile delinquent or a criminal or a psychotic—when you weigh all this, there is no ethical problem in performing abortions.

Maclean’s: How has taking up this cause affected your personal life?

Morgentaler: When I started doing abortions it added a certain dimension to my life, in the sense that I felt that I had more integrity. I was true to my beliefs. I was practising what I was preaching. This was the positive aspect. The negative aspect, of course, was that I was subjected to a great deal of stress. I was worried that some of my patients might be injured, might end up with complications, because it was a new method. Later on, there were all the unpleasant things, like having to go to court all the time, being handcuffed and humiliated, going to jail. There’s no doubt that it has affected my life. After you spend five years in a concentration camp and in a ghetto in your youth it’s not an easy prospect to face imprisonment. If I hadn’t been a gambler I probably wouldn’t have risked so much.

Maclean’s: Are there any other political struggles that you identify with? Morgentaler: Oh yes. I'm very interested in the treatment of political prisoners. I’m interested in all the problems that mankind faces where it is possible for people to collectively do something instead of not doing anything. You’ve got to deal with these problems, you’ve got to do your best individually and collectively. There are so

many things going on in society that need correction. The whole penal system stinks. Many things need to be done to humanize it. There’s so much poverty still around and so many injustices in other fields. There’s no shortage of causes to be involved in.

Maclean’s: People describe you as being restless. They say you will always catapult yourself into something, because somehow life without that is for you uninteresting. Morgentaler: I do need a cause, something that is greater than myself, to provide me with meaning. I think most people need a cause. Some people don’t realize it. Maclean’s: What about politics? Your father was a socialist. What about you? Morgentaler: I would describe myself as a democratic socialist. At one point I was considering going into politics. It’s still possible that I will do that, although I rather doubt it. To a certain extent I have become a symbol of abortion reform in Canada. I’m sort of vilified by people, called murderer and assassin by people who consider abortion murder, which is very unpleasant. On the other hand, I get adulation from those people who believe that I helped the cause, that I sacrified something for the cause. But until the passions die down it would be hard for me to be active politically, because most political parties do not like to touch hot subjects. Personally I would like to defuse some of that passion. I think it is generated mainly by the small minority of fanatics who consider abortion to be an abominable crime. Maclean’s: Do you blame them? Morgentaler: Reluctantly I would say yes. It’s only natural that the state and the medical profession should recognize that a woman is a fully responsible human being and should have the right to decide if she wants an abortion rather than a continuation of a pregnancy. Once she has made up her mind as to that fact, the state and the medical profession should respect that decision. It seems such a reasonable kind of stance.

Maclean’s: It sounds as if you are saying that it’s fine to break the law as long as in your heart you believe you are right. Morgentaler: I don’t say that. I believe that it is important to have laws, that a society without laws would be in chaos. But I also believe that laws are made by man. They are very often imperfect. There are laws that are unjust, and such laws need to be changed. Parliament changes laws all the time. A person who engages in civil disobedience has to be convinced that the law is causing tremendous harm and may cause death and injury. I always believed that what I was doing was legal in the sense that I was testing the law, trying to prove that the law is cruel and dangerous to women. I figured if my day came in court, I would be able to prove it in court and change the law that way.

Maclean’s: What do you think your parents would have felt had they been alive? Morgentaler: I’m sure they would have

been proud of me. When I was acquitted by a second jury my first thought was that it was a great moral victory, that my father and mother would have been proud of me. My father was one of the leaders of the Jewish Socialist Party in Poland. He was also secretary of the Union of Textile Workers and he defended the workers in court when there was a question of litigation and they could not pay a lawyer. So he was engaged in social battles. He was arrested by the Nazis as a prominent member of the Socialist Party, as soon as they invaded our city. He was held in prison, probably tortured and eventually sent away and probably executed. So I have an idealized image of my father which I have to live up to, a tremendous social con-


science, an involvement in social causes, a devotion to justice, a devotion to building a better society, the values of universal brotherhood and the belief in man as being basically good. This is a bit naïve, maybe. I believe that man has a potential for good and evil and it’s up to us to cultivate in ourselves what’s good by providing a society that will underscore or value the positive aspects of the human personality. Maclean’s: It sounds like a religion. Morgentaler: It is. Not a belief in the supernatural, but in a system of values, something you are committed to. I have my faults and my shortcomings. Maybe I should learn to be more indulgent toward my own faults and weaknesses, but it gives a certain stimulus to live up to a value system or high ideal. I’m very often dissatisfied when I find that I’m not doing

enough to promote the ideals I believe in. Occasionally I’m too passive. I like to withdraw occasionally and read a good book and be a private person. I don’t always enjoy being in the limelight.

Maclean’s: What about the state of your health? Do you think it has been affected badly?

Morgentaler: Oh, yes. I’m one of those fellows who likes to be in top physical condition. When I’m not, it depresses me because it sort of shows your imperfections or your fallibility as a human being. It brings about a sense of being nearer death. Maclean’s: Did you regret it then? Did you think “Why did I ever get into this?” Morgentaler: It’s hard to tell. I don’t remember. There are times when I felt despondent, rejected and depressed about being unjustly incarcerated. I knew that I had not committed any crime, that my only crime had been to help people. I knew that I had challenged the law, tested the law. I knew that I played fair. I played above board and I didn’t feel that the authorities played fair with me. I felt that they played dirty tricks on me.

Maclean’s: You had a chance, if I understand it correctly, to plead guilty to the 10 remaining charges and have the sentences concurrent with the one you were serving, and you decided to insist on pleading not guilty and going through with the judge and jurv for each of the 10 cases.

Morgentaler: Yes, I’m very proud of that decision. It was one of the hardest decisions to make, because I had been convicted already, I was serving my sentence,, and my lawyers were telling me that if I pleaded guilty the Crown would agree to have all my sentences concurrent, which means there would be no more charges against me. I would be subjected to no more legal expense, no more stress. But it was a question of principle. I did not feel guilty of any offense. I felt that I had not committed a crime and actually I welcomed the opportunity to prove to another jury that I was justified in providing an abortion. I don’t think I could have lived with myself for the rest of my life if I had given in or crumbled.

Maclean’s: Do you intend to do more abortions?

Morgentaler: No, not for the time being. I would gladly cooperate and work toward the establishment of clinics such as mine was. I actually offered my clinic to the government to train doctors and nurses. Maclean’s: What will you do if you go back to your general practice and people come to you again because of your reputation and say, “I’m desperate, I need an abortion.” How would you face that?

Morgentaler: To tell you the truth I would be very tempted to provide them with safe abortions in my clinic, but I don’t think that it would be wise for me to do that because I just could not stand the stress and the strain. After six or seven years of legal battles I think I have done my part. I hope other people will take it from here.£?