This morning Dr. Henry Morgentaler died of a heart attack in his Toronto home. He was 90 years old, in increasingly failing health these last few years, and with a lifetime – many lifetimes – of work behind him. May we one day win a world where all abortion providers can safely die of old age in their own homes. Thank goodness Dr. Morgentaler was allowed that.
I know that everyone will be talking about who Dr. Morgentaler was, what he did and why he was important. That information is easy to find. All I know is who he was to me – a very human hero, a real person who did a remarkable thing; after escaping with his life from a concentration camp, he willingly put that life at risk to make the world a better place for women.
Dr. Morgentaler exemplifies allyship. He was willing to sacrifice everything he earned – his reputation, his medical licence, his practice, his family, and his freedom – to improve the lot of a group he didn’t belong to. He saw injustice and saw his own power to make change and he did it.
In his early life, Dr. M. had the good fortune to escape darkness, but then he had the courage to spend the rest of his life attempting to bring others up into the light. His work in Canada literally saved lives – directly, for many of the women to whom he provided abortions (particularly when it was illegal), and indirectly for thousands of people, by being instrumental in striking down the abortion law.
The only time I ever met Dr. Morgentaler was two and a half years ago, at an end of year staff dinner when I worked at his clinic here in Toronto. For his toast he said a few humble words of gratitude, and then immediately turned the attention back to the roomful of people and insisted the true credit go to us. He was not a perfect person – nobody is – but as far as heroes go, we could have done a lot worse.
Though I didn’t know him, Dr. Morgentaler’s work changed my life for the better. Because of him, abortion is legal in this country and even though there’s a long way still to go, if I get pregnant that’s a pretty significant hurdle I don’t have to jump. Not to mention the two amazing jobs I’ve had because of him, and everything that brought me – spirited allies, lifelong friendships, life-changing experiences and a sense of purpose. His fight set this country on fire; he never set his torch down for a second, so damned if I will either.
In my mind I see Dr. Morgentaler as having given birth (ha!) to generations of feminist activists, I guess sort of springing fully formed from his head like Athena from the head of Zeus. In illegally performing abortions in defiance of an unjust law, he not only challenged the idea of the law as a standard of morality, he also freed us up to fight for justice in our own way. We pay tribute to Henry when we expand and push beyond abortion rights and into sexual and reproductive justice for all people, in every way. For all his great heroism, Dr. Morgentaler was just the spark. We are the powder keg.
Anyway, what I know is that Dr. Henry Morgentaler changed Canada for the better, and showed us who we truly could be in this country; he was an immigrant who, through hard work, became a respected doctor, and then refused to enjoy the rewards of a hard-won life when he could see that others still suffered. He represented the best of us.
Thank you Dr. Morgentaler, and goodbye – you have truly earned your rest.