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Conscience Magazine

Holding the Note

By Ruth Riddick April 19, 2017

“We must remain vigilant in defence of a woman’s right to choose, because there are still too many legislators and healthcare providers out there who are not prochoice, and too many women who continue to have their health put at risk because they are denied access to safe abortion services in a supportive environment.”

– Dr. Henry Morgentaler at the Canadian Labour Congress, 28 May 2008


What manner of movie might be called The Singing Abortionist? Hollywood pastiche? Dystopian fantasia? Sleeper hit at obscure film festivals?

Singing Abortionist Poster

At a time of ever more heightened public feeling around abortion, when the nation’s vice president legitimizes an annual demonstration whose only purpose is the repeal of previously settled and continuously supported law, surely the filmmaker is courting disaster with this ambiguous title?

Well, The Singing Abortionist turns out to be many things—none of which involves pastiche or fantasia—but there is (almost no) singing and there is (lots of) abortion. Part documentary, part family portrait, part Holocaust testimony, the film profiles legendary prochoice activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler. As a whole, it is as contradictory as it believes its subject to be.

And, yes, The Singing Abortionist was shown at both the South-By-Southwest (SXSW) and Tribeca Film Festivals, where the filmmaker, Dara Bratt, is a known quantity. It was also shown at a half dozen festivals devoted to Jewish themes and content.

What is it all about?

Henekh (Henry) Morgentaler has a story particular to the 20th century. Born in Łódź, Poland during the interwar years, Morgentaler’s father was murdered by the Gestapo, his mother killed in Auschwitz, his sister in Treblinka. Henekh and his younger brother Abraham survived incarceration at Dachau. In 1998, Morgentaler returned on pilgrimage. “He had a lot of trepidation before that trip,” we are told over footage showing the elder Morgentaler weeping at Auschwitz. “His past haunts him on a daily basis.” The personal Holocaust remembrance section late in the film is moving and a fine example of oral history, well matched with photographic and newsreel documents.

Following residence in a series of displaced persons (DP) camps, Henekh and his postwar bride, Chava Rosenfarb, relocated to Canada in 1950, where the 27-year-old became a physician and anglicized his name to Henry.

Why Canada? Chava, on her way to becoming a major Yiddish writer and acclaimed author of the Łódź Ghetto trilogy, The Tree of Life, had already succeeded in publishing her early poetry there. Having known each other from childhood, what more reason did the couple need?

In the first half of the film, we’re treated to a disjointed presentation of Morgentaler’s life—select facts frugally shared, a de-emphasis on external context except as fodder for psychological analysis, a breathtaking assumption that the viewer will have a preexisting and visceral understanding of what it must have been like to be a Jew at the coalface of the Final Solution (which is never named). It is left to Wikipedia to fill in the facts:

Over more than 60 years, Dr. Henry Morgentaler distinguished himself by becoming one of the first doctors to perform vasectomies in his adopted country, to insert intrauterine devices and to provide birth control pills to unmarried women. In 1969, he opened the first of what became a network of 20 abortion clinics across Canada, at a time when abortion was still illegal. (He characterized this practice as “civic disobedience.”) Morgentaler openly claimed to have performed thousands of abortions, and to have trained more than one hundred doctors to perform them. In a huge stunt designed to demystify the process, he invited a television crew into his clinic on Mother’s Day to film an abortion in real time.

Naturally, Morgentaler fought his share of legal battles, several deliberately provocative, against the law prohibiting abortion. He went to prison more than once before winning the landmark 1988 constitutional case, R. v. Morgentaler, which established that the law was unconstitutional on the grounds that it denied women the right to life, liberty and security of the person. Throughout, Morgentaler resolutely argued a “defence of necessity”; that is, as a doctor, his duty to safeguard his female patients’ life and health outweighed his duty to obey the antiabortion law.

Into his 80s, Morgentaler continued to lobby for access to safe, legal and free abortion. He and his staff were subject to the usual death threats and acts of violence so characteristic of “prolife” militants, including the fire bombing of one of his clinics. Archbishop of Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte resigned the Order of Canada in 2009 as a protest against Morgentaler’s recent inclusion.

The Couchiching Award for Public Policy Leadership presented to him in 2005 concluded:

The women’s movement of the 1960s found in Dr. Morgentaler a person who understood that women’s equality could not be achieved within the existing restrictions on medical services for reproductive choice. In offering women access to necessary services that faced considerable restriction elsewhere, Dr. Morgentaler used both his professional status and personal skills to fight for women’s rights, while placing himself at risk. His actions have brought about fundamental changes in Canadian law and to the healthcare system and in so doing dramatically affected for the better the lives of Canadians from coast to coast.”

In 2013, at 90 years of age, Dr. Henry Morgentaler died of a final heart attack.

By any standards, a monumental life.

But . . .

This film raises a question at the heart of our postmodern age: Does the personal life, which we feel free to judge on narrow and partisan evidence, delegitimize the professional achievement in politics or the arts (or elsewhere)? For cinephiles, the question translates as: Do we think the less of Mildred Pierce (1945) because she was played by Joan Crawford? Christina Crawford’s 1978 memoir of a childhood from hell forever cemented the guignol image of her Oscar-winning adoptive “Mommie Dearest.” Who now can watch Joan Crawford’s tremendous body of work, or consider her significance in illuminating the lives and concerns of early and mid-century American women, without (harshly) judging what we believe of the great star’s private life? (The moniker itself has passed into the language.)

Is Henry Morgentaler to suffer a similar diminution? It seems the unspoken mission of the film and a possible explanation for its faint hostility. There is much talk of psychology, and we are invited to analyze Morgentaler’s motives from this perspective. Morgenthaler’s stated social justice commitment, a deeply felt crusade that sounds almost quaint here, is sidelined.

Exhibit: Morgentaler is described in the movie’s notes as a “proud womanizer.” (He was known to practice “open marriage.”) Alert—morally bankrupt person here! “My whole life has been devoted to doing things that will get me the love of women,” Morgentaler tells the camera reflectively, guilelessly acknowledging a lifelong uncertainty of his mother’s love for him and inviting the inevitable contemporary charge of “sex addict.” (No media consultant would have allowed so vulnerable an interview.)

Does this “failure” in morals undermine the moral basis of Morgentaler’s prochoice crusade? Do we require that our (human) saints be (sexual) ascetics? Perhaps we do. The lives of the Catholic canonized overwhelmingly suggest that sainthood correlates with sexual scarcity and denial.

In The Singing Abortionist, we “deconstruct” the thrice-married man and hear from sons who are more or less reconciled to having had a father who played chess and table tennis (horrors!) but did not take them out to the ball game (unnatural!). “My parents’ marriage was not a success,” we are told. “It ended because he was cheating.” Morgentaler’s first wife, Chava, went so far as to take their son to Chile, whereupon Interpol was recruited to track her down on a charge of kidnapping. (Her website all but writes her former husband out of history. In fairness, The Singing Abortionist returns the favor.)

There is a sense in this film that, for the filmmaker, the past is but prologue and we will get through it in perfunctory style. The film’s second half, its personal chapter, is on much stronger ground in both presentation and perspective.

Could it be, after all, that this film is not intended for either a general audience or viewers with a primary interest in abortion politics or political history? Rather, the filmmaker may be conducting an internal dialogue within her community, where the inconvenient truth of this famous Jew’s humanism—“an absolute atheist” according to his self-eulogy—demands a substantial level of deconstruction before he can be accepted (back) into the fold.

Nonetheless, Morgentaler emerges as an attractive personality, well-loved by colleagues, admired for his intelligence and charm and old-fashioned virtues. Despite the confusions of this portrait, the lingering image is of a hero.

Ruth Riddick
Ruth Riddick

led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.