A Safer And More Caring Society

30 May

I keep thinking of ways to start this post, but I can’t figure out the right words to use.

What do you say about someone whose contribution to your life, and the lives of all women, is invaluable?

I guess that I should start with the most basic fact: Henry Morgentaler, doctor and agitator for women’s reproductive rights, died today. He was 90. His work helped save the lives of countless Canadian women.

Henry Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1923. A Polish Jew, he was sent to Auschwitz during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. He survived. His parents did not. He came to Canada in 1950. In 1955 he opened a family practice in Montreal. He soon began petitioning the government to reconsider their stance on abortion, and opened an abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. At that time, attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment. Dr. Morgentaler’s clinic was raided, and he was arrested, jailed and acquitted multiple times, both in Quebec and Ontario. Abortion was legalized in 1988, in no small part because of Dr. Morgentaler’s actions. In 2008, he was named to the Order of Canada.

I’m only giving the briefest of biographical details, because I know that tons of other publications will discuss and dissect his life much better than I can. And anyway, that’s not really what I want to talk about right now. I want to talk about how Dr. Morgentaler’s struggle to legalize abortion affected all of us, and continues to affect us to this day.

Full disclosure: I’ve never had an abortion, and I hope that I never have to. Not because I think they’re wrong or bad, but because I try to avoid medical procedures if and when I can. But I have friends, many friends, who have terminated pregnancies. And I know that most, maybe all of them would not be in the same happy, secure places in their lives had they chosen not to terminate.

Every baby should be a wanted baby. I have a son, and I wanted to have him. But carrying a pregnancy to term and then raising a kid is hard fucking work, and those things shouldn’t ever, ever be forced on any woman. My friends who have had abortions are able to live the lives that they do because they had the ability to choose. Many of them have very successful careers. Some of them have gone on to have planned, wanted children since then. Some of them already had children before, and have been able to enrich those children’s lives by giving them the time, care and resources that they worried would be diminished with the addition of another child. For some of them abortion was a difficult, emotional choice, and for others it wasn’t. But for nearly all of them, choosing to terminate meant being able to finish school, being able to work in demanding fields without having to make sacrifices for their families, or just being able to focus on their lives as they were, without adding an additional complication.

Anti-choice groups nearly always talk about what kind of cancer-curing genius any given fetus might grow up to be, but almost no one talks about what a woman might become if she chose to terminate her pregnancy. We already know that it’s basically impossible for the average woman to “have it all,” so really, who knows how many women would have gone on to make incredible scientific discoveries, be brilliant world leaders or do one of any number of things that might have changed the world for the better had they chosen to terminate a pregnancy. Or else consider the number of smart, successful women that you encounter every day  – your doctor, maybe, or your lawyer – who may have been able to get where they are now because at some point in their lives they had to choose whether to have a child, and they chose not to. On a more mundane level, think of how many women would have felt able to leave abusive situations earlier if they didn’t have a child complicating the situation. Think of how many women there are worldwide live in grinding poverty, working two or more jobs just to make ends meet, because they were unable to choose to have an abortion.

Above all, think of how many lives Doctor Morgentaler saved by helping to legalize abortion. First of all, because the legalization of abortion helps Canadian women avoid the same awful fate as Savita Halappanavar, who died because Irish law prohibited her doctors from terminating a non-viable pregnancy that was medically dangerous to her. Second of all, because history has proved time and again that criminalizing abortions does not stop them from happening, it just makes them more deadly to women. Without Doctor Morgentaler’s work, Canadian women would still have to seek back alley abortions if they wanted to terminate a pregnancy, procedures which often resulted in infection, sterility or even death.

Doctor Morgentaler was someone who understood what true lack of freedom was. In 2005, after receiving an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Western Ontario, he said,

“By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential.”

He then went on to add,

“Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder.”

Having seen what the escalating restrictions of rights and freedoms had resulted in during the Holocaust, Doctor Morgentaler dedicated his life to giving Canadian women autonomy over their own bodies.

He said, “I felt, as a humanist and as a doctor, that I had a moral duty to help these women.”

Thank you, Doctor Morgentaler. Thank you for fighting for my right to choose, should I ever need to do so. Thank you for working tirelessly so that my friends could have the freedom to do whatever they want with their lives. Thank you for letting working class mothers choose to devote the time, energy and resources that they have to their existing children, rather than forcing them to add another mouth to feed.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.


28 Responses to “A Safer And More Caring Society”

  1. girlseule May 30, 2013 at 2:34 am #

    Thanks for putting a different angle on things by pointing out how many women may not have gone on to have the success they did if they hadnt had the right to choose.

  2. Celeste May 30, 2013 at 2:40 am #

    I have goosebumps and tears in my eyes. Such a strong ending to such a strong and important piece.

  3. jj May 30, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    Well said.

  4. Momma May 30, 2013 at 3:03 am #

    Well done. Not an easy topic for a lot of people. I’m glad you were brave enough and eloquent enough to do so.

  5. hitandrun1964 May 30, 2013 at 3:39 am #

    What a wonderful man. I wish I had known him. Thank you for the introduction and I am grateful for his dedication and work.

  6. martin audette May 30, 2013 at 3:47 am #

    thank you for showing us the face of evil, Gosnell would be proud.

    • Ciara Raven Blaze May 30, 2013 at 5:00 am #

      what’s so evil about giving women a chance to live their lives instead of being forced to raise children that they didn’t want?

    • Sahm King May 30, 2013 at 9:35 am #

      Some have a concept of “evil” that precludes actual evils.

      Martin, Gosnell was a murderer and did very many things that were against the law. Not to mention his license to practice was revoked years ago and he still continued to practice. It appears that, whatever Gosnell’s officially stated reason, the motivation was money, not saving lives, and not protecting women’s rights. I fail to see the reasoning behind the comparison… It’s as if you sat a cube and a sphere on the table and said, “See? The sphere, which is a shape, is evil, therefore the cube, which is also a shape, is also evil!”

      Logical fallacies don’t make good foundations upon which to build one’s convictions. Just a thought.

  7. Meaghan May 30, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    I actually have tears in my eyes, not that I have had to make the choice, but I have thought about what I might do if ever put in the situation..
    Just, this was beautifully written and shows such honor for this magnificent human being.
    Thank you, thank you, thank YOU!

    Also, didn’t he have such an innocently beautiful smile?

  8. mary s May 30, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    Thank YOU for this beautiful post/tribute to a wonderful man. I strongly believe in and will fight to the death to have autonomy over my body so that pretty much covers why I have always been a ‘proponent’ of abortion. However, your very thoughtful post adds even more layers and dimension to the value of choice & the dangers and consequences of no choice.

  9. Bastet May 30, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    Reblogged this on Bastet and Sekhmet and commented:
    Thoughful article from Belle Jar.

  10. silvermud May 30, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Very, very well said.

  11. Sahm King May 30, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    It’s shameful…that’s the one thing I never considered, and now that’s thinking like a man. I like the way you came at this, asking the question, how many women who could have been anything else, but aren’t, because of restrictions on their autonomy? The thought never occurred.

    Very excellent piece.

  12. pengantinpelik May 30, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    Reblogged this on pengantin pelik and commented:
    An alternative view on abortion, or, a woman’s right to have one (just as it her right to NOT have one and carry her pregnancy to full term). Something to think about: “Anti-choice groups nearly always talk about what kind of cancer-curing genius any given fetus might grow up to be, but almost no one talks about what a woman might become if she chose to terminate her pregnancy.”

  13. She Curmudgeon May 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    Yes. A thousand times, yes. No one ever talks, either, about the circumstances women forced into having kids they don’t want find themselves in, or these circumstances’ effects on the kids, and what kinds of people those kids grow up to be (read, maybe not always cancer-curing surgeons, despite hard-working mothers’ best efforts, because child-rearing is hard.)

    Of course, if every reactionary who thought they had a right to a woman’s uterus had already adopted or fostered an unwanted child of every color and level of (dis)ability out there, it’d be a different discussion, because then choice wouldn’t be so hampered. And the reactionaries wouldn’t be who they were.

  14. willowmarie May 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    he was a passionate & courageous man- a champion for women’s rights & reproductive autonomy. He understood the power of choice & his advocacy changed the lives of countless women for the better.
    This is a loss.

  15. Rebecca Knight Hutchens May 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    How strange, that I’ve never considered it in precisely those terms either, despite having grown up in a pro-choice household and being pro-choice myself: stop imagining what the fetus might do that’s great, and start imagining how great the woman could be (in whatever her endeavors) without the unwanted child.
    Wow. That’s some deeply patriarchal society right there, when we care more about the fetus than the child. (Not the first time I’ve noted that, but never when speaking of potential for greatness.)

  16. indeed. May 30, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Totally. My mom had an abortion – in Buffalo, because she couldn’t get one in Canada at the time. She already had a couple of kids, but was in the midst of making a huge life decision – leaving her then-husband. She did it, and eventually got remarried and some years later got pregnant again with me. So yeah, I’m pretty happy that she was able to do it, because who knows what might have happened if she couldn’t. I am however pissed that she couldn’t do it in her own country.

    I will never understand those who want it to be illegal. There are lots of things I personally wouldn’t do, but don’t think should be illegal.

  17. Craig Brazier May 31, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    Hi Anne. My best to Matt and Theo. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours (drinking) with the great doctor and the producer / broadcaster Patrick Watson many, many years back. As strident and stubborn as Dr. Morgantaler could be in his public personna (and rightly so), he came across as gentle and thoughtful in private.

    Women and men across this country should be grateful for his efforts and sacrifices. It’s the work of Dr. Morgantaler and other brave soulds of his ilk that make me proud to be a Canadian.

  18. Rosie June 1, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on FEMBORG.

  19. The Hook June 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm #

    Powerful words about a powerful man.

  20. Conversations with GayatriG July 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    What a fabulous piece. And yet so gentle and provoking thought, rather than anger. It is a shame that the so called pro-life supporters hold an as yet unborn foetus’s life in higher regard over the already existing mother. Who are we to judge whose life is more valuable? How is THAT morally right? And who gave THEM the right to pick one over the other?

    P.S. I am grateful to people like Dr. Morgantaler, for, however indirectly, these are the pillars on which a humane world stands. Thank You. May God bless your soul.

    • Jenn September 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

      Pro life advocates are not asking the Mother to DIE. The Mother is asking that the baby DIES. So yes. It is a bigger issue. One is being chosen over the other…in one case someone lives, in the other one dies. The Mother can give that baby up for adoption. They can both have a life. There is nothing freeing or beautiful about abortion. Look at a photo of tiny body parts in a dumpster, the heart broken post abortive mother with a searing regret that can manifest so severely that she not only never recovers but can display symptoms of PTSD. The late term abortions of babies who suffer and struggle for life only to be treated like garbage? A great man? A previous commenter says she was glad that her sibling was aborted because otherwise her mother may not have had her? THIS is a healthy thought? This is the single most narcissistic comment I can imagine on the topic. How about if your mother had carried BOTH of you…and you could have known your sibling. Do you know how that baby died? It was not pleasant. There are other ways to live your life without parenting a child. Killing this baby should be the very end resort. Being too lazy, ignorant and selfish to explore adoption is not justifiable. This post and the comments surrounding it is an example of the deplorable decline into a world with no value for human life, or equality for those with less power. If the rights of the person who was here the longest trumped those younger I suspect our old age homes would be better places. The argument has to hold true across the board. Human life either has value or it doesn’t. We either get to decide who dies. Or we don’t. It baffles me that we cannot end the lives of some of our most vile prisoners but can end the life of a baby. LOTS of people demand support to be kept alive. We ALL depend on each other in some respect for survival. I don’t get to decide that your life should end because you depend on me. The ability for a woman to feel a life inside of her, to create the most incredible of miracles and to destroy it is beyond imaginable to me (and I am not talking about the rape victim or the baby with a condition not conducive to life) If you just for one second examined the other side…you may very well be sick at what you have written. You should be so ashamed. You are disgusting. I literally have no words for my outrage. What else was more important than that baby? What sacrifice was not worth it or possible while they were alive?

  21. quickstepp July 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    Such a well thought out and interesting piece. I’ve always thought about it mostly in terms of a quality of life issue for the child.

  22. hqas March 3, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    This is truly heart-touching and really needed at a time when the world is totally going haywire condemning, judging and using religion as moral police for the issue of abortions.
    He is a hero, whose loss is a blow to women rights issue, in particular those seeking safe abortions.


  1. Weekly Linkroll | M. Fenn - June 2, 2013

    […] A Safer and More Caring Society On the anniversary of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, we also mourn the death of Dr. Henry Morgenthaler, the man who succeeded in making abortion legal in Canada. The Belle Jar shares her thoughts in a beautiful essay. […]

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    […] article about him by blogger Anne Thériault. The article was originally published on her blog, The Bell Jar, on May 30, the day of his […]

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    […] May 30th Henry Morgentaler died and the Huffington Post asked me to write a sort of tribute to him. Which, I mean, I find it kinda hilarious that I am the first person they think of when they need […]

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