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Henry Morgentaler – the passing of an Icon

May 30, 2013

I was in Grade Ten the morning our Principal took the unusual step of coming on the public address system to do the ‘morning announcements’ himself, in order to tell us that a monster named Henry Morgentaler had just opened an abortion clinic in Toronto and that this was an abomination against life, and against God!

How innocent was I at that moment? I did not know what an abortion was. (Given that I was already sexually active that is a very sad fact indeed.)

I remember later hearing about the bombing of the Toronto clinic. We have all watched, over the years, as abortion doctors have been assassinated.

Canada is still divided on the abortion issue. Prime Minister Harper only recently had to again muzzle some of his backbenchers who wanted to re-open the abortion debate.

And in the United States more abortion clinics are being closed every year. And I truly believe that it will not be long now before abortion is again illegal in America.

Conservatives – most of whom profess libertarian beliefs – have no qualms pursuing the idea that women should not have a choice when it comes to abortion. Even in cases of rape, like the 12-year-old who was raped and impregnated in Florida, they are opposed.

Pregnancy, they argue, is the Divine gift of God.

CBC Radio was reporting this morning that there were approximately 125,000 illegal abortions being performed per year in Canada in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Women had to meet back-alley charlatans (or the occasional doctor) who would perform the operation for them. Many women died in botched or unsterile operations. The social stigma attached to the women was staggering.

Often lost in the Henry Morgentaler story is the work of all the women who fought to change the abortion laws, and lost too, is the contributions made by Pierre Trudeau – who infamously quipped that the government had no right to be in the bedrooms of the nation. It was while he was Prime Minister that abortion (and the use if contraceptives) was legalized. Big moments in their time – now part of the fabric of freedom and choice we take for granted.

I was fortunate to meet Mr. Morgentaler a couple of years ago as he is a friend of my girlfriend’s parents. He spoke softly, amiably and with affection. In many ways, his demeanour reminded me of that other great Canadian whom I once got to speak to: David Suzuki.

It was almost 40 years ago, that morning when my public school principal told us, after we had stood for our daily ritual of ‘Oh Canada’ and the Lord’s Prayer, that Henry Morgentaler was a monster. In 2008, after much public pressure, Henry was awarded the ‘Order of Canada’. The highest merit in the land.

He will be missed.

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