April 7, 1985 • Vancouver Province
One Man’s 16-Year Crusade
Dr. Henry Morgentaler arrives in Vancouver this week to speak at UBC Friday night. Sunday he speaks to the Victoria Canadian Abortion Rights Activist League to raise funds for his legal defence. While he says no abortion clinics are planned for B.C., anti-abortion groups fear Morgentaler is eyeing Nanaimo and Victoria. Today The Province looks at the man whose fight for abortions is a crusade.
The evocative countenance of Dr. Henry Morgentaler leaves few people cold. Some see the devil incarnate, others see a golden aura radiating from behind the man’s head. But nearly everyone has an opinion.
Juries seem to like him; prosecutors and attorneys general are another matter.
A small minority of Canadians might look at a photo, shrug and wonder where they’ve seen him before.
He has crusaded for more liberal abortion laws since 1969 when Parliament legalized the operation — but only for certain cases in certain hospitals.
As the women’s movement grew in the 1970s, Morgentaler’s cause was as much a symbol of their new-found strength as it was a tool to explore Canada’s sometimes sexist legal institutions.
Morgentaler is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz. He has been named Humanist of the Year. He has been called a murderer.
Now, he is waging a war in the courts of Ontario and Manitoba that is all too similar to the seven-year battle of Quebec he fought a decade earlier.
That fight earned him an 18-month jail term. He served 10 months, suffering a heart attack shortly after going to jail.
But he did change the legal establishment’s outlook on abortion and jury verdicts.
Now he strides into battle for the same cause in Ontario and Manitoba, casting an eye to the Maritimes, and his admirers are forming columns behind him.
His followers see his involvement in the cause of freer abortion as saintly.
“He’s a passionate, affectionate and alive humanist,” says Marva Blackmore of the Concerned Citizens for Choice on Abortion, sponsors of a Morgentaler rally at UBC Friday.
“He only began performing abortions because he saw desperate women coming to him, asking for help. He couldn’t refuse them,” said Blackmore.
Opening abortion clinics in 1983 has invited new prosecution and many costly police raids.
Morgentaler is protected from nagging outsiders who would sap the 62-year-old’s strength.
“He has cut down on his work in the clinics,” says publicist Selma Eddlestone. “It’s a struggle. He’s in the clinic just two days a week now, and out trying to mobilize support three or four other days.
“To him, it seems to be a struggle against insensitivity and injustice.”
Morgentaler has made it clear he does not relish the idea of going to jail. He sometimes fears he will be murdered. But he is a willing martyr, a rare breed in these times.
Morgentaler’s Trials and Tribulations
Distressed civil rights activists thought he had won his legal battle nine years ago
Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s present battle with the courts in Ontario and Manitoba has distressed civil rights activists.
They thought the abortion crusader had won his battle nine years ago.
“I find it depressing that this man continues to be persecuted,” Alister Browne, medical ethics spokesman for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the Province, “But it stems from the fact that there is no political will to change the law.”
“It’s far too controversial and legislators will continue to avoid the issue,” Browne added.”
As long as the Criminal Code stipulates that abortion is illegal unless the patient is approved by a hospital abortion committee and the operation is conducted in an accredited hospital, prosecutors will always have grounds to lay charges, says a professor of legal ethics at the University of B.C.
Morgentaler’s trials and tribulations are simply “politics couched as law,” says the professor, who asked not to be named. “It’s just too much political dynamite,” he added.
This was borne out in the last federal election when the nationally organized “pro-life” group Campaign Life, using sophisticated polling and advertising campaigns, set up a list of politicians it would seek to have defeated. Iona Campagnolo, defeated in North Vancouver-Burnaby, John Turner, successful in Vancouver Quadra, and Burnaby MP Svend Robinson, who was re-elected, were targets.
Campaign Life is a symbol of the new conservatism.
Ten years ago when Morgentaler faced the courts in Quebec, he found backing from legions of pro-choice supporters.
On Friday, when he steps up to the podium to speak at UBC he is likely to be met by a crowd with a different point of view. Now hostile demonstrators meet him at every turn.
They are Canadians who say abortion is tantamount to murder and that life begins at conception. Even if their numbers are not growing, they are certainly becoming more effective at getting their views known.
And Morgentaler is before the courts again, charged with committing a crime by performing therapeutic abortions.
Ten years ago, he was in a Quebec prison. His province’s Court of Appeal had taken the controversial measure of reversing his acquittal by a jury on charges of performing an illegal abortion.
What astounded constitutional experts at the time was that Mr. Justice James Hugesson imposed an 18-month sentence on the doctor without ordering a new trial.
When Quebec’s attorney general realized he couldn’t get a jury to convict Morgentaler after three acquittals on the same charge, he left him alone but financially ruined after the seven-year battle.
Political columnists pointed to the Quebec election campaign and suggested the Liberals needed the publicity to win a mandate in the predominantly Roman Catholic province.
Today there are eight of his clinics in operation with the Quebec government’s blessing.
In his defence of Morgentaler on the same charge in Ontario court last November, lawyer Morris Manning raged at Associate Chief Justice William Parker’s “failure to remain impartial.”
Manning’s summation urged jurors to “send a message to the government” if they thought the abortion law was unfair.
Parker then took 3½ hours to explain to the jurors they were not legislators. Three Quebec judges wasted their breath trying to get the same point across a decade earlier.
The jury last November found Morgentaler not guilty. But then-attorney general Roy McMurtry appealed the acquittal and police raided the clinic within weeks of Morgentaler’s court victory, charging him with the same count of conspiracy to procure a miscarriage but on new evidence.
Canadian courts employ the adversary system — two opposing forces arguing a point of law before a judge.
But Morgentaler supporters wonder what happens to justice when one of the two adversaries is the highest public servant in the system charged with holding justice sacred.
They say that defying the jury’s verdict in a particular case and sending a police force on raids and prosecutors on a mission to find a certain judgment in a case damages the integrity of the system.