His beard, glasses and hawknosed profile have become familiar symbols in Canada’s heated debate on abortion. To his enemies, Dr. Henry Morgentaler is nothing more than a mass murderer of the unborn. At the same time, campaigners for the right of women to control their own pregnancies hold him in something close to reverence. Neither perspective, however, bears much resemblance to the central figure in last week’s Supreme Court decision—a doctor whom colleagues describe as an ordinary man with a good sense of humor, although one that is tinged with brusqueness.
At 64, Henry Morgentaler has survived both the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews and the efforts of successive Canadian governments to close his abortion clinics in three cities. He has weathered two failed marriages, psychoanalysis, a heart attack and nearbankruptcy. Although he is not wealthy, Morgentaler in recent years has been able to indulge a taste for Caribbean vacations. And last month he became a father for the fourth time. Declared Morgentaler last week: “People call me a baby killer. I’m not killing babies. I love babies.”
Miracle: In fact, Morgentaler’s latest child was born on Jan. 9 at a Toronto hospital. The boy, named Benjamin, is his first child with Arlene Leibovitch, a freelance translator with whom he has lived unmarried since 1986. Morgentaler was present in the delivery room and said of the experience, “I don’t believe in God, but childbirth is an absolutely breathtaking miracle.” And he continues to declare his respect for that miracle despite having terminated an estimated 20,000 pregnancies since 1968. Indeed, he defends the morality of abortion in part by pointing to the neglect and abuse that is frequently the result of unwanted babies. “What’s gratifying,” he told Maclean's last week, “is when women who have had abortions in my clinic have children later, when they can provide nurturing, love and care for them.”
Many of his friends and opponents trace Morgentaler’s concern about unwanted children and aggressive social activism to his own childhood. He was born in 1923 in Lodz, Poland, the eldest son of Josef Morgentaler, a declared atheist and a union leader in
that city’s textile industry. But Morgentaler has said that he felt unloved by his mother, Golda. Reflected Morgentaler last week: “The desire for social justice was, in practice, the religion in which I grew up.” That desire was intensified by the gestapo murder of Josef Morgentaler shortly after German armies occupied Poland in 1939. And in 1944 the city’s remaining Jews, including Morgentaler’s family, were shipped to the Auschwitz death
camp. Golda Morgentaler died there; her two sons survived.
Morgentaler emerged from the Holocaust determined to serve his father’s ideals. Recalled his brother, Michael, a Montreal business consultant: “Our experiences gave Henry a very strong will to eliminate inhumanity. He does not want to see suffering.” And after Henry married his childhood sweetheart, Lodz-born writer Chava Rosenfarb, that goal led him to
study medicine, first in West Germany and later in Canada at the University of Montreal. In 1955 he became a doctor and opened a practice in Montreal.
Right: In the early years he did not perform abortions. But in 1967 Morgentaler’s beliefs led him to appear before a parliamentary committee studying Canada’s abortion laws. There, he told MPs that abortion should be seen “not as a privilege but as a right.” Those widely reported remarks resulted in a series of telephone calls to his Montreal general practice clinic from women seeking abortions. Recalled Morgentaler: “I was trapped in my own rhetoric. It wasn’t enough to say the law should be changed. I felt it was my duty as a doctor to provide help, despite the risks.”
Shortly after his parliamentary committee appearance Henry Morgentaler performed his first abortion.
Still, Montreal police did not raid his abortion clinic until June, 1970, an incident that was followed by a sixyear saga of highly publicized trials and appeals. And in pursuit of his goal to reform Canada’s abortion laws, Morgentaler’s tactics were sometimes sensationally provocative. In the wake of an incident in 1973, when he allowed a television crew to film an abortion for broadcast on Mother’s Day, Quebec officials laid fresh charges against him. And while three juries eventually acquitted Morgentaler of performing illegal abortions, he was jailed for 10 months in 1975 when the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned one of those verdicts. But in 1976 the Parti Québécois provincial government which took office that November barred any further prosecutions by declaring that the federal Criminal Code’s anti-abortion provisions were unworkable. By 1980 the Quebec government had created a network of abortion clinics throughout the province—and hired Morgentaler to train abortionists.
Morgentaler paid a high price for his beliefs: he suffered a heart attack in prison and was $100,000 in debt when the Quebec prosecutions ended. In addition, his marriage to Chava had disintegrated and the breakup strained relations between the physician and his daughter Golda—now a University of Montreal professor of Yiddish—and his doctor son Bamie, who practises as a urologist in Boston. Exhausted, Morgentaler largely
withdrew from the abortion debate after 1976.
He re-entered the fray in 1982. By then Quebec clinics were offering something close to abortion-on-demand. But elsewhere in Canada, a resurgent anti-abortion lobby had persuaded a growing number of hospitals to abandon the procedure. During his absence from the abortion battle Morgentaler had remarried—to Chileanborn linguist and teacher Carmen Wernli—and his health had recovered, in part through intensive psychotherapy. He had also paid off the debts incurred in his legal battles. Recalled Morgentaler: “I told myself I had achieved reproductive freedom for the women of Quebec. Now I was going to
do it for the rest of Canada.” To that end, he opened clinics in Winnipeg and Toronto in mid-1983. The police in those cities reacted by raiding the clinics several days later—although the Toronto clinic reopened in late 1984.
Price: Morgentaler’s confrontational tactics resulted in victory last week when the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the abortion law violated the Constitution, but that latest win came with a familiar price. He said that he blames the stress of legal battles, in part, for the collapse in 1984 of his second marriage—although Morgentaler shares custody of the couple’s son, Yann, 7. And although a national fund-raising campaign has helped defray legal costs of almost $500,000, Morgentaler told Maclean's that he still owes close to $100,000. At the same time, vandalism, death threats and a 1983 attack by a man wielding
garden shears—Morgentaler was unharmed—have resulted in tightened security at Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic, where police are on duty outside the three-storey building around the clock.
Even so, friends say that Morgentaler has mellowed. “He is more relaxed,” observed Toronto author Eleanor WrightPelrine, who wrote a 1975 biography entitled Morgentaler: the Doctor Who Couldn’t Turn Away. And Norma Scarborough, president of the Toronto-based Canadian Abortion Rights Action League and an associate for more than 14 years, added, “With people, he is a very gentle, warm human being with a terrific sense of humor.” Even his critics concede that Morgentaler is a sincere advocate of his cause. Said Kenneth Campbell, a Baptist minister from Milton, Ont., founder of the anti-abortion group Choose Life Canada: “I don’t question that he perceives himself as the champion of women’s rights.”
Income: Certainly, his financial condition has improved. Since his Toronto clinic reopened Morgentaler has worked there three days a week as well as performing abortions—which cost about $300—at his Montreal clinic about once a month. He acknowledges that his annual income is close to $200,000—an amount that allows him to take 12 weeks of holiday annually, spending much of that leisure time in the Caribbean, where he likes to swim, sail and scuba dive at Club Med resorts. At home in the rented Toronto house that he shares with Arlene, he relaxes by listening to classical music, especially cello concertos, playing table tennis and reading widely—favoring books on psychology, philosophy and history.
He noted that he had just recently finished For Your Own Good, an examination by Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller of the consequences of cruelty to children. Said Morgentaler: “She shows how Hitler was brutalized terribly as a child.” That thought provoked Morgentaler to offer a reflection on his life and career: “I want to make my contribution to humanity so that there will be no more Auschwitzes. Children who are born wanted and are given love and attention will not build concentration camps.” Clearly, to the man at the centre of last week’s decision, the ruling represented a giant step away from the shadow of the Holocaust.
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