Henry Morgentaler Dead: We Need More Abortion Rights Advocates Like Him

Have you heard of Henry Morgentaler? He died on Wednesday, but in 1969 he launched the abortion rights movement in Canada.

Morgentaler broke the law when he opened the first Canadian abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. He continued to open abortion clinics throughout Canada, despite multiple firebombings and one assassination attempt.

He eventually won the 1988 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions in Canada, but only after enduring years of personal attacks involving everything from garden shears to ketchup. He eventually installed bulletproof windows in his home and took to wearing bulletproof vests.

Why did he take so many risks?

He believed that the law was unjust. In his biography, written by Catherine Dunphy, Morgentaler is quoted as saying "The law was barbarous, cruel and unjust. I had been in a concentration camp, and I knew what suffering was. If I can ease suffering, I feel perfectly justified in doing so."

In an interview with the Canadian Press in 2004, Morgentaler credited his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust for his ability to fight for so long against the Canadian legal system. He lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust before moving to Montreal in 1950.

Many women look to Morgentaler as a crusader in the women's rights movement, fighting heroically for abortion rights and improving the lives of women throughout Canada. He was arrested and jailed multiple times, but three juries refused to convict him, believing his opinion that continuing a pregnancy would endanger his patients' mental or physical health. 

Eventually, Canada recognized his bravery and contribution to the country, giving him the Order of Canada for his work. Even then, conservatives and anti-abortion activists in Canada heavily criticized the award and Morgentaler himself.

Today, the legislature of Quebec passed a motion to call Morgentaler a lifelong champion of women's rights, although the federal government has not even issued a statement on his death.

Which raises the question: have women's rights really advanced that much since 1969? The sad answer might be no, not really.

Violence against doctors who perform abortions still abounds, especially in the United States. As recently as 2009 Dr. George Tiller was shot in Kansas, and there were multiple cases of vandalism, arson, and bombing in just the past few years.

State laws in the United States have even pushed President Obama to lash out against restrictive abortion policies. "The fact is, after decades of progress, there's still those who want to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century," said Obama at a speech during the 2013 Planned Parenthood conference. 

Henry Morgentaler dedicated his life to making huge advances for abortion rights in Canada, but we still need another Henry Morgentaler in America. It's been over 40 years, but times haven't changed that much.

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Susannah Griffee

Susannah Griffee is a junior at New York University majoring in journalism and politics. In the past she has interned for ABC News, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and NBC New York. She also enjoys running, painting, and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter at @SusannahGriffee.

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