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Conscience Magazine

Remembering Henry Morgentaler

August 14, 2017

Thanks for Ruth Riddick’s article on Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the physician who singlehandedly won the battle for abortion rights in Canada. Henry was only a little over five feet tall, like James Madison, but he was a colossus with his concern, compassion for and commitment to women’s health and rights of conscience. His years-long pioneering of out-in-the-open abortion services for women in Montreal culmi­nated in his arrest and trial for violating Canada’s then-repressive, unworkable abortion laws. Opting for a French language trial in predominantly Catholic Montreal, Henry was rather quickly found “not guilty” by the jury. Astonishingly, the acquittal was appealed and reversed by a Quebec appellate court. Henry became the only person ever to be imprisoned in Canada after being acquitted in a jury trial. His story is told by Canadian writer Eleanor Wright Pelrine in her moving 1975 book Morgen­taler: The Doctor Who Couldn’t Turn Away.

The irony is that Henry, born in Poland in 1923, survived years in Nazi concentration camps only to be imprisoned, possibly for life if prosecutors had their way, in the democracy of Canada. After three jury trials, all ending with acquittals, prosecutors finally gave up in 1976. In 1988, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled in R. v. Morgen­taler that the country’s abortion law violated the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed on women’s right to “life, liberty and security of person.”

It was my privilege to have known Henry person­ally over the years. In 1990, my wife and I attended a conference of the Interna­tional Humanist and Ethical Union. Its major award was being presented to the Belgian physician responsible for getting abortion legalized in Belgium. The award was presented by Dr. Henry Morgentaler (in French, of course) in the country where he had begun his medical education.

Henry was also a pretty good poet in English—his fifth language after Yiddish, Polish, German and French.

President, Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, MD