Click to read Ephesians 6:10-18
| Print |
We recommend "Landscape" print layout.

Henry Morgentaler  (Humanist, Abortionist) 1923 - 


By Carman Bradley

(Principle reference - Morgentaler:A Difficult Hero, a biography by Catherine Dunphy)

According to biographer Catherine Dunphy, it was through the “pro-choice cause” that Henry Morgentaler was able to live up to the legacy of his Jewish socialist-martyr father, Josef Morgentaler, and to the stern ideals of his remote, artistic mother, Golda.  The abortion crusade in Canada gave him meaning and rescued him from despair.  It let him be brave.  It provided the enemies he needed, the media attention he sought, the adulation he craved and a platform with which he, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, could fight the state and win.[i]  Abortion on demand fit well the morality of his atheist and humanist belief system.  He was not seen as a feminist but as a humanist; he loved many women and couldn’t be monogamous.  His first wife, his childhood sweetheart, with whom he survived five brutal and tense years in the Lodz ghetto during the war, refuses to speak about her former husband and has as little as possible to do with him.  Just months before a tribute to Morgentaler his second wife bolted from Montreal to Chile, taking their son, Yann, with her.  Yann has said this was what he himself wanted.  Morgentaler’s eldest child and only daughter, Goldie, cut off communications with him many years before.[ii]  He is not a family man in any traditional sense of the term.

Henry Morgentaler is a Polish-born Jew raised as an atheist.  When thinking about the ten-year abortion battle, he credited his mother for his “strength of character, steadfastness in adversity and artistic sensitivity”, and his father, for “gentleness, compassion, idealism and a commitment to social justice.”[iii]  He was first president and founder of the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC). This humanist philosophy, in “spirit” placed him in company with Charles Darwin; Albert Einstein; Margaret Atwood; John Kenneth Galbraith; Pierre Trudeau; Sue Rodriguez; Carl Sagan and Benjamin Spock, to mention a few.

According to the HAC web site, humanism is a life-stance dedicated to the betterment of society through the use of reason and ethics from a non-religious viewpoint.  Humanists look to scientific inquiry, reason and compassion for the solutions to human problems.  Humanists do not believe in any deity and consider notions of an afterlife and rewards and punishment after death by a supernatural god meaningless. The movement supports equality between the sexes and promotes a non-violent approach to resolving conflicts.  Statistics Canada records that about 3 million people are without religious beliefs [all are not necessarily humanists].  For adherents, humanism is an alternative to organized religion.  The first funeral service conducted by an HAC celebrant was held in March 1995, the first HAC wedding ceremony was held in August 1996, and in June 1998, HAC performed its first “undoctrination” ceremony.[iv]

Humanism, although not yet identified as such in Poland, was Morgentaler’s heritage.  His father, Josef was a Jewish socialist and union-activist, who Henry worshipped, although he rarely saw him.  Josef helped establish the Textile Workers’ Union and began protesting for an end to sixteen-hour days, improved working conditions and better pay.  He earned the reputation of revolutionary and troublemaker.  According to Dunphy, the Jewish socialist Labor Bund was never just a political party.  It was central to the lives of thousands of secular Polish Jewish families.  Its dogma was their faith, its heroes their saints. There were celebrations, a secular society’s replacement for religious holidays and rituals.  Morgentaler’s parents were attracted because the Bund broke with the fatalistic Jewish religious tradition of wait, hope and adapt as a way of overcoming problems.[v]  Golda Nitka Morgentaler intimidated Henry, and he has always felt she didn’t love him.  His had been a painful breech birth; she had been ill for the first six weeks of his life and he was cared for by a wet nurse.  More to the point, says Dunphy, he was pale and awkward, always underfoot, as well as sickly.[vi]

Walking home, he would pass a Polish Roman Catholic school just as its students were getting out for the day.  They poured from the building, blond kids, faces reddening as they screamed, “Jew! You killed Jesus Christ,” then surrounding him and beating him up.  Soon Henry began to detour through the fields, giving a wide berth any time he saw a group of Polish boys, no matter how far away they were.  It was the prudent thing to do.  Dunphy says, today, it still gnaws at him:  “Walking around, walking away, avoiding those Polish boys gave me a feeling I was a coward.  I had to battle against that feeling for a long time.  And later on I had to prove to myself I wasn’t.” [vii]  Four years later in 1936, when Henry was thirteen, the Morgentalers moved back to the ghetto.  Anti-Semitism by then was rampant; violence was increasing.  It was no longer possible for a even a nonreligious Jewish family, to live in the Polish parts of the city.

By the time the Germans had officially taken over the city, a sixteen year old Henry was already on his way to Warsaw.  Henry could not understand why Josef had returned from his hiding place in the country.  He did not want to think his heroic father might have given up, but Josef Morgentaler was subdued and depressed, and looked very much a broken, disheartened man those last days he spent with his family.  There was no laughter, no more fist pounding politics or earnest confessions of simple dreams.  When the military police knocked on their apartment door the afternoon of September 21, 1939, they were very polite as they requested that Josef Morgentaler accompany them.  He was taken to a detention camp in Radogoszcz, a suburb of Lodz, where he was interrogated and tortured.  Golda managed to visit her husband and bring him some food once or twice before he disappeared, but Henry never saw his father again.[viii]

The “Final Solution” was adopted on January 20, 1942.  Henry managed to maintain a semblance of his former life until then.  The Morgentaler family was soon rounded up and sent to Auschwitz.  Although only fifty, Golda Morgentaler had probably been ordered straight to the gas chamber.  Just twenty-five, like many others including his brother Mike, Henry worked twelve hours of excruciating labor every day, to survive.  Surrounded by death and starvation he still wanted to live, but his strength was ebbing away.  He thought, “Maybe I should believe in God.”  Writes Dunphy:

But how could a God let such a thing happen to his people?  To people who believed in him?  All around were the faithful praying to their God, and then dying wretchedly the next day.  How could millions of people be so sinful that they would be punished by this horrible death by degradation?  So he picked a star in the sky, an active one that zigged, then zagged with brio.  That’s what he would believe in.[ix]

When Morgentaler was rescued, he weighted 70 lbs.  Says Dunphy:

At some stage he decided to become a doctor, a healer, a Saviour, a man like Louis Pasteur.  He would never be afraid again.  He would never play by anyone else’s rules.  That was for his father.  The Nazis had not beaten Henry Morgentaler.  Anything was possible again.[x]

In February 1950, Henry and wife Chava (3 months pregnant) arrived in Montreal to create a new life.  Memories of his father’s achievements left Morgentaler with a nagging sensation that he did not deserve a comfortable life, until he had attained a level of heroism like that of his father.  And he had always known what he wanted.  From the moment he’d walked off the boat into Montreal’s chilled February air, he has been in charge of his life.  Observes Dunphy:

Most everything in the years that followed had gone according to plan, his plan and his goal, the one he had decreed for himself in the camps.[xi]

Goldie Morgentaler was born August 8, 1950, and was named after the mother Henry was never sure loved him.  By 1953, he had received his medical degree at Cardinal Léger.  He worked summers as camp doctor in a Hebrew-speaking camp until gaining Canadian citizenship, along with his license to practice in the province of Quebec, in 1955.  From 1960 to 1964, Morgentaler underwent therapy for nightmares.  The alternating blue lights and siren of the snow removal equipment triggered flashbacks.  Some psychiatrists believed it was impossible ever to recover from the Holocaust, even for a survivor like Henry, who believes it was luck, not any divine guidance, that let him live.[xii]  Therapy had given him an understanding: “It opened up a lot of energy.”  In 1963 Henry happened to read a small newspaper announcement of a Montreal talk by a member of the Ethical Cultural Society from New York City.  It was sponsored by the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal, an organization Morgentaler had never heard of; however, that night everything Jerome Nathanson said Mongentaler believed.  Suddenly his ideas and experiences were coming together into a coherent framework.  He joined the Humanists that night.

With humanism, Henry finally thought he was home.  A philosophy and lifestyle that is not only nonreligious but antireligious, it advocated bettering society through reason, scientific inquiry and humanitarian compassion.  Here was everything Josef Morgentaler believed in - social justice, brotherhood and the belief that people are inherently good and society’s institutions cause much of the evil in our culture.  In Montreal’s Humanist Fellowship, Henry believed he had found a place where Jews were equal partners in social activism with Unitarians, atheists, intellectuals and other humanitarians from far-flung and varied ethnic origins.  This would be where Henry would keep his father’s faith – and rejuvenate his own, which had been battered by the brutality he encountered from the Third Reich.  In 1964, Henry became president of the Montreal Humanist Fellowship and when the Montreal Humanists decided to present a paper to a special government standing committee of health and welfare looking into abortion law reform, Morgentaler’s destiny fell into place.  Writes Dunphy:

Here was an issue he knew something about, a medical matter that spilled over into society and into real people’s lives.  It provided an unprecedented chance to mesh his work with his philosophical and value systems, and gave Humanists the opportunity to rally around an idea central to their beliefs.  It was also an issue on which all the Fellowships could agree.  (The brief was endorsed by Humanists in Victoria, BC, and in Toronto, and Henry believed it served to instigate the formation the following year of the Humanist Association of Canada.  Henry was its first president.)  But first he had to convince his fellow Humanists to take a more radical position from the one they referred, which mirrored the Canadian Medical Association’s middle-of-the-road stance that abortions be granted when a committee of three doctors decreed a woman’s life or health was in danger.[xiii]

He was in a state of heightened anticipation, happier than he had felt in years.  In recommending that women have abortion on demand, he knew he was going to make Canadian history.  During the presentation, Liberal MP Warren Allmand, asked why a fetal age of five months should be a cut-off point for allowing abortions (as recommended by the Humanists), when science should be able to keep a child alive outside the womb after three months.  “I think that is a very interesting question,” Morgentaler replied.  “I also think I will have trouble answering it…”[xiv]  Soon women from all over Canada started calling Morgentaler, women who thought they had finally found someone who would perform abortions on demand. “Oh, God, what did I do?  What did I do ?” he moaned.[xv]

In 1967, Canada appeared to want to follow Britain’s lead in liberalizing abortion and homosexuality.  Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau (previously a member of the Board of the Montreal Humanist Chapter)[xvi] tabled an omnibus bill reforming the Criminal Code.  It became law in 1969 when he was Prime Minister.  Homosexuality was decriminalized and so was the dissemination of contraceptives or contraceptive information, after a long campaign spearheaded by Planned Parenthood founders Barbara and George Cadbury.[xvii]  Prior to legal reform in 1969, abortion was the leading cause of death to women in their maternal years.  Despite social condemnation, legal barriers and dangerous conditions, many women sought out abortions.  A police chief complained long and bitterly in a Toronto Telegram[xviii] article about the many women going to Cuba for abortions and those using the dubious talents of local abortionists. “Most abortionists are unskilled persons who do their work in the client’s home or in their own home with no regard for sanitation,” noted reporter Helen Allen.  The motive was age-old and it wasn’t noble.  “It’s the money that gets people into this business,” said Detective Sergeant William Quennell, whom Allen described as head of Metro Toronto police’s abortion squad.

As early as 1960, the United Church of Canada was the first religious body to publicly advocate abortion for women whose health or life was in jeopardy because of pregnancy.  But it was only when medical professional bodies joined the fray that legislators were convinced it was time to come out of hiding on this issue.  In The Politics of Abortion, professors Janine Brodie, Shelley Gavigan and Jane Jenson estimated that thirty-three thousand abortions were performed in Canada in 1959 alone.[xix]  Here a need to address the safety issue seemed practical and sensible.  Certainly more sensible than the headline-grabbing notion being touted by a Dr. Morgentaler that there should be no value judgments, just abortions for whoever asked for one.[xx]  Says Dunphey:

Perhaps, but it was 1969.  Society was in extreme flux, and the boundaries between medicine and mores were blurred and shaken.  To Morgentaler the opportunity was clear and in east-end Montreal, he decided to fold up his family practice and specialize in abortion.[xxi]

Only once did he tell a journalist that his wife Eva had had an abortion.  In the mid eighties, Ian Brown, then a feature writer for the Globe and Mail, reported that “Eva has endured a ‘very illegal; and very painful abortion in the early  1950s - no anesthetic was used.”  Henry admitted he felt helpless and demeaned.  They had been ordered to use the servants’ back entrance into the imposing stone Westmount mansion of the abortionist.  The nurse there was brusque and disdainful; Eva had been ill and shaken.[xxii]  In his ground-breaking article in the Humanist, he wrote of a patient of his who had needed an abortion and who committed suicide when he didn’t help her.  [Since then he has admitted that the reference to the suicidal patient was not entirely accurate.]  Said Morgentaler, “I wanted to make my point.  I don’t think I ever had a patient who committed suicide, although I had lots of women who threatened to commit suicide if they didn’t get help.”[xxiii]

Morgentaler amazed himself:

Here I was for the first time in my life doing my most daring thing in my life, really, defying the law of the new country that had adopted me, basically, and playing for very high stakes, risking prison, possibly my medical license, the security of my family. [xxiv]

Comments Dunphy:

He felt uplifted, mythic; finally he had reached for and embraced his destiny.  Now that his cause had his total commitment, now that he was an action hero, it was more than a cause - it was a crusade.[xxv]

He never asked Eva what she thought of his decision to perform abortions.  He spoke with no one about it - “Why didn’t I discuss it with Eva?  I don’t know.  At the time we were pretty much apart in our lifestyles.”[xxvi]

Morgentaler went on the campaign trail across Canada.  As Bobbie Spark, one of the women on the Abortion Caravan, told the Socialist Worker  magazine years later:

You have to understand that patriarchy is a system of control, that those who control my body and my womb and those who control the courts are all linked… I think it’s important to understand that when you take on what appears to be, in the public eye, a single issue, in fact if you really follow it through you find that they all interlock and dovetail.  It puts you up against capitalism, against the church and against the state, and against all the structures that support these institutions, and they all have a vested interest in opposing women’s rights to abortion.[xxvii]

Dr. Heather Morris, who headed a Canada-wide organization, Alliance for Life, became a bitter foe.  Morgentaler described her:

[She] was the worst.  She was very religious.  Once I debated her in front of a labor movement group and she took out a recording of a fetal heart.  It filled the room.  Boom, boom.  Boom, boom.  On “Canadian AM” I asked her if she would allow a fourteen year old who had been raped to have an abortion and I took by her silence that she would not even allow an abortion in this type of case.  Afterwards, as we were leaving the studio, she said, “I know you are a good doctor, a good technician.  Hitler also was technically proficient, you know”.  I was so shocked I almost slapped her face.  She just left.  To this day I hate her for that.[xxviii]

The result of conducting some 5,000 illegal abortions by the early 70s, meant Morgentaler needed help managing his financial success.  He hired his brother to administer a couple of apartment buildings he had bought.  With Mike’s advice, he eventually bought five more buildings, all of them with small down payments, most of them before 1972, when income tax laws allowed depreciation on apartment buildings to be deducted against professional income.[xxix]  In 1982, Right to Life president, Laura McArthur claimed Morgentaler had performed some 116,000 abortions at $225 per procedure.[xxx]  Moreover, in 1988, when Henry Soucy learned and applied Morgentaler’s technique, in a Toronto clinic, he started charging $50 a procedure (Morgentaler charged $250).  In three increments Soucy raised his charge to $175.  “I lowered our rates to match his,“ said Morgentaler.  He had to.  Soucy had spread the word in Montreal that he was using “Henry’s” technique.[xxxi]

Continuing on the theme of money - by 1988, the issue was no longer access to abortion, but the quality of the process.  Members of his own staff wished to raise the customer care bar.  “Henry was warm and caring, but it was the way the whole thing was set up,” said clinic worker Janet Mawhinney.  “You couldn’t see twenty-five women a day and offer them more than six or seven minutes for counseling, including a description of the procedure.”  Some of the newly hired doctors were “fabulous.”  Others were in it for the money, which, at $100 per doctor per procedure, became some $1,800 in a day.[xxxii]

In 1973, fellow humanist Pierre Trudeau became Liberal Prime Minister.  Encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court decision with Roe vs Wade, of January, Morgentaler chose to reveal that he had performed 5,641 successful abortions by vacuum suction curettage.  Wright Pelrine, an abortion rights activist and author of Morgentaler: The Doctor Who Wouldn’t Turn Away  was at the event:

The meeting erupted in pandemonium.  Enthusiastic feminists and civil libertarians went wild.  They gave Henry Morentaler a standing ovation….But from the press, a deafening silence.[xxxiii]

That spring, Pelrine convinced CTV to have Morgentaler appear on the television public affairs program “W5” actually doing an abortion.  CBC had earlier turned the proposal down.  Morgentaler thought it would “demystify” the procedure.  They had even found a woman willing to participate:

Slim and attractive, Petra Hartt was married and the mother of a toddler.  She and her husband wanted to have more children, but first they were building a house and expected to be in Mexico all winter.  She wanted to be identified.[xxxiv]

CTV aired the segment on May 13, Mother’s Day.  Hartt was about five weeks pregnant; the abortion took about five minutes.  It was obvious the procedure was safe and “pain free.”

Charged with performing illegal abortions, Morgentaler went to trial in the fall of 1973.  In October a letter went out from the Toronto Committee to Defend Dr. Morgentaler.  Organizations endorsing his defence included: the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC).  The trial lasted six weeks and ended in his acquittal.  After the trial Morgentaler entered an affair with Mireille Lafortune, a university psychology professor who had written him a short note after his acquittal.  As an abortion rights activist, she was thrilled by his win.  At this time Morgentaler’s wife was often in Australia with her lover.[xxxv]

In the spring, 1975, the Supreme Court upheld Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision that Morgentaler was guilty of performing an illegal abortion.  He went to jail.  Soon appeals for amnesty came from NAC and the American Humanist Association.  Although Prime Minister Trudeau had personally known Morgentaler for over twenty years, he refused to consider any action.  The authorities also wouldn’t release him from jail to allow him to receive the American Humanist Association award for the Humanist of the Year (He was to share the honors with Betty Friedan).  Friedan, one of the founders of the National Association for Abortion Rights, came to Montreal the day of the final court appearance, along with some Humanists, in a foiled attempt to present Mongentaler with his Humanist of the Year award in the courtroom.[xxxvi]

Once allowed day passes from the prison, Morgentaler decided to visit his Barton Street address.  He was happy with Mireille and accepting that Eva was equally content in her new relationship.  But when he found the locks to the doors had been changed, he felt so insulted and angry; he instituted divorce proceedings on the basis of Eva’s adultery.  They were easy to prove, since her Australian lover had been living with her in what was still officially the Morgentaler matrimonial home.  Later Henry reconsidered.  “I had committed adultery many times before, so it was a bit sneaky and hypocritical that I should accuse her of adultery.”  He subsequently changed the grounds to marriage breakdown out of respect for both of them, and the childhood sweethearts were officially divorced in 1977.[xxxvii]

By September, 1976, Morgentaler was involved with Joyce Yedid, a young articling law student.  Henry had met her through his friend Muriello when she’d told the psychiatrist she admired Henry and supported his cause.  She visited Henry at Villa Mount Royal as an acolyte, and their relationship progressed from there.  On December 10, the Quebec government halted all prosecution against Henry and recommended that the federal government amend the abortion law.

According to Dunphy:

With this news he grew restless.  Winning had meant he had lost his cause, and without his cause he no longer had an identity.  He was a private citizen without a purpose, living safe and flat; he was ordinary.[xxxviii]

Always a lover of women, he pursued them now with pent-up, redirected passion.  There had been, and would continue to be many women in his life, and with one exception - criminologist and Le Dain Commission member Marie-Andree Bertrand - Henry was always the one who left.  “I think each woman would believe she was the final stop, but the train had a lot further to do,” said Gertie Katz.  “Once he left Chava he got on that train and it just kept going.  For a long time there was no stopping.”  His breakups with women were often abrupt and careless.  May times his liaisons overlapped, making women feel betrayed as well as abandoned.  In Toronto and Montreal, there was talk that Henry Morgentaler was a chauvinist, insensitive to individual women.[xxxix]

Soon after the anti-climactic opening of a Manitoba clinic, Henry left for Oregon to follow a guru Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, labeled “Sex and Saran Wrap Swami” by the media.  He had set up an earthly paradise in Oregon and managed to amass thousands of red-robed devotees, most middle class professionals “who changed partners as often as a square dance.”[xl]  “Rajneesh was ahead of his time about AIDS and diseases,” Henry explained.  “He had his followers wear rubbers.  He even had married couples wear condoms and rubber gloves during sex.  I thought that was stupid.”  Morgentaler liked the guru’s brand of dynamic meditation; he approved of the advice he heard others get in some of the counseling sessions; he liked chanting, the massages; he agreed with them that sex was important; he figured all the Rolls-Royces weren’t.[xli]  Ma Anand Sheela, the guru’s principal advisor, had to officially announce to the women followers they were not obligated to have sex on request.  Two years later, Rajnesh was arrested on board a plane he had chartered with some followers, trying to avoid some immigration charges.  He was fined $400,000 and ordered never to return to the US; his fleet of ninety-three Rolls-Royces were put up for auction.

Some 1.5 million abortions are now performed annually in Canada and the United States.  Abortion is one of the most common medical operations.

Copyright © 2008 StandForGod.Org

[i] Catherine Dunphy, Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero (Toronto: Random House, 1996), p.8.

[ii] Ibid., p.10.

[iii] Ibid., p.9.

[iv] “Humanist Association Information,”, 2/21/01.

[v] Dunphy, pp.13 and 14.

[vi] Ibid., p.17.

[vii] Ibid., p.18.

[viii] Ibid., pp.22 and 23.

[ix] Ibid., p.34.

[x] Ibid., p.37.

[xi] Ibid., p.45.

[xii] Ibid., p.56.

[xiii] Ibid., p.62.

[xiv] Ibid., p.63.

[xv] Ibid., p.66.

[xvi] Ibid., p.62.

[xvii] Ibid., p.68.

[xviii] Ibid., p.70.

[xix] Ibid., p.71.

[xx] Ibid., p.73.

[xxi] Ibid., p.75.

[xxii] Ibid., p.78.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid., p.81.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid., p.84.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.100.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid., p.104.

[xxx] Ibid., p.204.

[xxxi] Ibid., p.322.

[xxxii] Ibid., p.327.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p.106.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p.107.

[xxxv] Ibid., p.126.

[xxxvi] Ibid., p.141.

[xxxvii] Ibid., p.150.

[xxxviii] Ibid., p.165.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid., p.211.

[xli] Ibid., p.212.