MORGENTALER: A DIFFICULT HERO By Catherine Dunphy (Random House, 474 pages, $32)
Canadians prefer their heroes to be modest and understated. Unfortunately there are precious few of that type, and Dr. Henry Morgentaler is not one of them. Although a deep compassion and belief in justice spurred him on his path as an abortion rights pioneer, little about Morgentaler is humble. Perhaps that is why those Canadians who do view him as a genuine hero nonetheless have a hard time celebrating the life of this complex Polish-born Jew, now 73, who altered Canadian legal, medical and social history. And perhaps that is why Catherine Dunphy, a feature writer for The Toronto Star, subtitled her probing new biography A Difficult Hero.
Thankfully, Dunphy never opens a philosophical discussion about abortion. She examines Morgentaler’s life chronologically, providing an exhaustive—and sometimes exhausting— history of the fight for abortion rights in Canada. More significantly, she explores the links between Morgentaler’s background as a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust and his crusade for safe abortions. Assisted by Morgentaler’s audiotape diary, Dunphy reveals the physician’s complicated personality without wading out of her depth into psychoanalysis. As Morgentaler’s friend, the late Toronto businessman Gordon Edelstone told Dunphy, seeing pregnant vomen fearing for their lives apped into Morgentaler’s aarlier pain. “He saw unbridled force and brutality against the helpless people on the concentration camps,” Edelstone said. “The irratonal unfairness he experienced as a child—he will never rest until he can destroy that ghost.”
Morgentaler was born in the manufacturing city of Lodz, Poland, to working-class arents involved with the Bund, a secular, ewish socialist movement. He was deeply influenced by his father, a brave union oranizer who had spent time in jail. Ultinately, Morgentaler lost his mother in the luschwitz death camp, his sister in Treblina and his father to an unknown fate. Only me and his younger brother, Mike, managed a survive a transport to Auschwitz and nine months in the Dachau concentration camp.
A desire to live up to his father’s example, and to overcome the fear and self-loathing that the Nazi horror imprinted on him, later turned into a lifelong dedication to the prochoice cause. As Dunphy makes abundantly clear, Morgentaler came at the issue not as a feminist but a humanist. As he was liberated from Dachau he vowed to become a doctor. Two decades later, as a member of Montreal’s Humanist Fellowship, Morgentaler presented the group’s brief to an Ottawa parliamentary committee examining abortion, just one of several civil rights issues that interested him. When he was besieged by phone calls from terrified women seeking safe abortions, the physician felt that he could not turn them away.
What followed has been a singularly tumultuous life: three jury acquittals in Quebec and one in Ontario on charges of procuring a miscarriage, a Montreal conviction that led to 10 months in jail, where he suffered a heart attack at the age of 52, death threats and physical assaults, arson and bomb attacks on the clinics, and a series of Supreme Court challenges culminating in the 1988 decision that struck down the federal abortion law as violating a woman’s constitutional right to security of person and freedom of conscience.
But the biography’s strength is its glimpse of the private man behind the impervious face and superior intellect. He has had recurring nightmares and bouts of severe depression due to stress, fear and his Holocaust trauma. He is estranged from his daughter, and the brother who kept him alive with scraps of food in Dachau would not talk to him for years. (They reconciled before Mike’s death earlier this year.) Morgentaler has also fathered four children by three different women. Dunphy writes of his two marriages and numerous romantic liaisons as well as his experiences with LSD, primal scream therapy, the Indian guru Baghwan Shree Rajneesh and frequent escapes to Club Med.
Dunphy slows her narrative by recording every twist in the fight to establish Morgentaler clinics across the country. And, given the space she devotes to pro-choice activists, the author could have provided more detail on Morgentaler’s foes, such as the late Joe Borowski, who unsuccessfully mounted his own Supreme Court challenge to have the rights of the fetus constitutionally protected. But Dunphy achieves virtuosity in some sections, including her description of Morgentaler’s selfdefeating rebellion against authority while in prison, and of him sobbing uncontrollably a year ago after he inexplicably ended his decade-long relationship with interpreter Arlene Leibovitch, mother of his nine-year-old son.
Today, Canadian women need not fear death or sterility at the hands of back-alley abortionists or from desperate, self-induced methods. The outlaws are no longer abortion-seeking women or their physicians, but those who violently oppose them. Still running eight of Canada’s 16 freestanding abortion clinics three decades after he began, Morgentaler personifies a profound transformation in Canadian society. Dunphy’s biography not only chronicles that transformation but also exposes the contradictions of an obstinate but extraordinary man. As he read through the 1988 Supreme Court judgment that was the culmination of his life’s work, Morgentaler put on a Beethoven violin concerto and thought of his parents. “I told my mother this victory was for her,” he later wrote. “I talked to my father telling him, because of him, I became the man I am.” It was as if Morgentaler had finally proved his worth to the anti-Semitic bullies who shattered his youth.
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