Henry Morgentaler was born in Poland in 1923 and emigrated to Canada in 1950. All Morgentaler’s family members except for his brother had died in death camps. He became a physician and Canada’s best-known advocate for safe, legal abortion, and he detailed his activism in a feature article he wrote for Free Inquiry in the Winter 1988/89 issue (one of several articles he contributed over the years). Morgentaler joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal in 1963 because humanist philosophy “was devoid of dogma, arbitrariness, and supernatural claims, but also because it had a framework of values that seemed relevant to the concerns of contemporary humans.” When he became its president, he decided to make the organization more active. They first took on education: in the province of Quebec, no secular schools existed and Protestant and Catholic schools were taxpayer funded. The issue went all the way to the Supreme Court but they were defeated. Morgentaler’s group next took on abortion law reform. He wrote: “It was natural for a humanist group to adopt this issue for many reasons: the defense of women’s rights and the empowerment of women to be equal and autonomous members of the community; the elimination of the scourge of illegal clandestine abortion with its toll of death, injury, and suffering; and the realization that ‘wanted’ children given love and affection in their formative years would be more likely to grow up into emotionally healthy individuals and responsive members of the community.”
After 1967 when Great Britain passed a liberal abortion law, pressure began to build for changes to Canadian law. On behalf of the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal, Morgentaler wrote a brief that was presented to the House of Commons Health Committee. It was the first group to advocate abortion on request. (The document was endorsed by humanist groups in Toronto and Victoria and led to the formation of a humanist national organization, the Humanist Association of Canada.)
Morgentaler’s success in raising public awareness and support for the issue led to a dilemma when women desiring abortion sought his services as a doctor: “They could not wait until the law changed; they needed help immediately.” He started to provide abortions in his office in 1968, perhaps being the first doctor in North America to use a vacuum suction technique that became the standard. He also vowed to never turn away a patient due to an inability to pay. “I decided that it was my duty as a doctor and a humanist to practice what I preached and to help women in need of abortions. . . . I knew that I was taking an enormous risk and that criminal prosecution was likely to follow.”
Referrals from professionals, including liberal religious leaders, all across Canada and even the United States led to such a demand for Morgentaler’s abortion services that he trained four doctors. When abortion law reform was finally passed in 1969 in Canada, Morgentaler found it deficient: abortions could only be performed in hospitals (although not all were required to offer it) and only if the mother’s life was threatened, which would be determined by a committee of doctors. Thus there was still a demand for Morgentaler’s services, and he continued to perform them in an office setting. His clinic was raided in 1970, and he was charged with performing illegal abortions. But he became more determined to advocate for safe abortion for Canadian women when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 in Roe V. Wade, and he demonstrated that the procedure could be done safely outside of hospitals on national television.
In Morgentaler’s first trial, he was acquitted by a French Canadian Catholic jury. But then the Quebec government appealed his acquittal to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which overruled the verdict and sentenced Morgentaler to eighteen months in prison. It brought another case against him, and he was again acquitted by a jury. To the outrage of civil libertarians, the government made more attempts to retry Morgentaler after acquittals, which led to the government’s downfall. (The other doctors performing abortions had also been arrested and charged during this period, interrupting services for a time in Canada.) The new government, of René Lévesque, declined to pursue further prosecution and also chose not to enforce the new abortion law.
Morgentaler then opened clinics in other parts of Canada, where he also faced raids and prosecution. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law and established safe, accessible, legal abortion for Canadian women.
In his article for Free Inquiry (he also wrote in subsequent issues providing updates on the abortion struggle and his view of the future of humanism), Morgentaler commented on the morality of abortion and the consequences of liberalizing legislation: “Medical abortion on request and good quality care in this area are a tremendous advance not only toward individual health and dignity of women but also toward a more loving, caring, and responsible society, a society where cooperation rather than blind submission to authority will prevail.”