HISTORY

DEAR PIERRE

A private letter to the PM had Morgentaler naming names

COLIN CAMPBELL May 19 2008
HISTORY

DEAR PIERRE

A private letter to the PM had Morgentaler naming names

COLIN CAMPBELL May 19 2008

DEAR PIERRE

HISTORY

A private letter to the PM had Morgentaler naming names

COLIN CAMPBELL

In his decades-long struggle to legalize abortion, Henry Morgentaler became one of Canada’s most controversial figures. In the courts, on television, in newspapers, the abortion doctor fiercely championed the pro-choice cause. He paid a price for it too, from death threats and jail to seeing his clinics bombed.

But a newly discovered letter from his private correspondence with then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau reveals an equally heated debate was going on behind the scenes. The letter, uncovered in the National Archives by historian George Egerton, was written on Aug. 28,1973, just after the police in Montreal raided Morgentaler’s office and charged him with performing illegal abortions. Lashing out at the government’s refusal to liberalize abortion laws, Morgentaler writes that he has performed abortions on some of Trudeau’s relatives, as well as those of other cabinet ministers. “Do I have to convince you really of the hypocrisy of the present laws?” he writes. The letter is ominous (at times, even threatening), but it is also a desperate plea for the prime minister’s compassion. And it provides a glimpse into the doctor’s state of mind—exasperated and emotional—at the beginning of the most tense period of Canada’s abortion debate.

Morgentaler’s letter, which addresses Trudeau with a familiar “Dear Pierre,” begins with a warning that their earlier correspondence has been taken by the police. When the letter was written, the two had known each other nearly 20 years, though Trudeau stopped replying to Morgentaler’s letters in 1970, notes Catherine Dunphy in the biography Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. Morgentaler tells the prime minister he wants to “get some thoughts off my chest.” “It seems that whoever gave the order to proceed against me was really out to nail me for good this time,” he writes. “If they want to make a martyr of me, so be it.”

Morgentaler says he is prepared to fight the charges against him “until the bitter

end—firmly convinced not only of the moral rightness of my course of action but also of the hypocrisy” of the law. Then the letter takes a dark turn. “Do you know that in my clinic I have helped wives, daughters, mistresses and relatives of members of the federal and provincial cabinet, including some relatives of yours? Do you know that Dr. Leon Trudeau, a cousin of yours, has been referring cases to me?” he writes. “Do you know that a relative of [former Quebec minister of health] Claude Castonguay... had an abortion in my clinic just

the day before I was raided?”

Morgentaler follows with another sharp swipe at Trudeau, suggesting his inaction is based on fear of the Créditistes party in Quebec, which strongly supported the Catholic Church’s position on abortion. In doing so, Morgentaler is “putting the dagger into Trudeau” in a very shrewd way, says Egerton, a professor at the University of British Columbia. As Morgentaler correctly suggests in the letter, Trudeau, even with a minority government, could have changed the law with the support of a willing NDP party, says Egerton. “Would it be wrong to conclude that the rights of women have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency?” asks Morgentaler.

There’s little doubt Morgentaler is driven in part by the urgency of his situation. At the bottom of the typed, two-page letter, he scribbles that the police have just told him he is facing six more charges and will be arrested. “Have they gone insane?” he adds as a final postscript. But his tone softens markedly at the end. He appeals to Trudeau as “a man who strongly believes in justice and civil liberties for all men and women,” and he concludes that his criticism comes “without any malice whatsoever.” “I also want to assure you that if I refer to prominent people having had safe abortions at my clinic it is not with the intention of embarrassing anyone but only to bring into stronger focus the hypocrisy and absurdity of the law.”

He seems sincere in arguing that his real aim is not to threaten Trudeau. Terry O’Neill, an anti-abortion activist who provided the letter to Maclean’s, argues it reveals Morgentaler to be either “a sinister plotter or a foolish zealot” but certainly not a blackmailer. Despite being imprisoned in 1975 and fighting many charges, Morgentaler didn’t publicly repeat the harshest of these accusations. (Morgentaler, now 84, didn’t respond to requests to comment on the letter.)

The real mystery may be what impact the missive had on Trudeau, who was a Catholic, but also not entirely unsympathetic to Morgentaler’s point of view. History suggests it ultimately had little effect. It would be another 15 years before Morgentaler, in a 1988 Supreme Court decision, finally won the battle against what he called Canada’s “unjust and discriminatory” laws. M