Spartacist Canada No. 178
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, 1923-2013
Heroic Fighter for Abortion Rights
Women and Revolution
Dr. Henry Morgentaler died in Toronto on May 29 at the age of 90. For more than 40 years, he was at the centre of the struggle for abortion rights in Canada. A tenacious fighter and a humane and compassionate man, he repeatedly risked his freedom, security and even his life in this struggle. In the early 1970s he was subjected to six years of trials despite three jury acquittals, and spent ten months in prison, suffering a heart attack after being thrown into solitary confinement. In 1983, police raided his clinics and he was again dragged through the courts for defying Canada’s reactionary abortion laws. Again, no jury would convict him.
Morgentaler’s greatest legal victory was in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988. As a result, Canada today has no laws restricting abortion rights. Yet a patchwork of obstacles and regulations, including too few doctors and inadequate medical facilities, mean that many women lack access to this medical procedure. Morgentaler himself fought for 20 years against obstructionist provincial governments that refused to fund abortions or tried to bar him from setting up clinics. In New Brunswick, a woman needs the consent of two doctors for a publicly funded abortion. In Prince Edward Island, one cannot get an abortion at all. In Yukon and Nunavut, abortions are not performed after 12 weeks, hitting Native women harshly.
Morgentaler performed tens of thousands of abortions, and many of his patients sought to express their gratitude, for he had quite literally saved their lives. But his defiance of Canada’s abortion laws also tapped into a seemingly bottomless well of anti-woman bigotry, often laced with anti-Semitism. Abortion is socially explosive because, in giving women control over their fertility, it undermines the institution of the family, a key instrument for the oppression of women. Thus the right to free abortion on demand is inseparable from the broader struggle for the emancipation of women.
From the Lodz Ghetto to the
Auschwitz Death Camp
Henry Morgentaler’s story began in Lodz, Poland where he was born in 1923, the son of ardent Jewish socialists. Poland was (and remains) overwhelmingly Catholic. Its deeply rooted anti-Semitism exploded in the mid-1930s as Jewish businesses were boycotted and Jews were barred from jobs in the civil service, in public schools and many other places. A wave of pogromist violence between 1935 and 1939 was instigated by reactionary political parties, the clergy, landowners, the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie, leaving many hundreds dead and well over 1,000 injured. As Morgentaler told his biographer Eleanor Wright Pelrine:
“Jews were the Christ killers, and Poles were vicious and virulent in their anti-Semitism, largely on a religious basis. There were other factors, of course. Jews were used as scapegoats; they were resented for their presumed economic power and almost everything else. An anti-Semite could use any argument he liked. There was a large Jewish proletariat, a lot of poor Jews in Poland, and on the one hand the anti-Semites damned Jews as the big capitalists, and on the other as revolutionaries trying to overthrow the system.”
—Morgentaler: The Doctor Who Couldn’t Turn Away (1975)
Henry’s father Josef was a well-known and respected trade unionist and member of the Jewish Socialist Labour Bund. An early target for the Nazi stormtroopers, Josef Morgentaler was arrested and tortured just weeks after the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland. He died in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis. Jews in the Lodz ghetto, which included Henry, his brother Mumek (Mike) and mother Golda, endured starvation and forced labour. When the Nazis liquidated the ghetto in 1944, the Morgentalers were shipped to Auschwitz along with many others. Near the end of the war, the brothers were sent to Dachau. Against all odds, they survived.
Postwar Canada and Social Struggles in Quebec
After the war, Henry made his way to Belgium where he studied medicine. However, he could not practice there, and he and his wife Eva, also a survivor of the death camps, managed to get to Canada in early 1950. Anti-Semitism was endemic in the Canadian ruling class. Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King had effusively praised Adolf Hitler in 1937 and his government slammed the doors to desperate Jews fleeing the Nazi Holocaust. Between 1933 and 1945, Canada took in fewer Jewish refugees than any other imperialist power: not even 5,000.
This was one of many crimes committed by the imperialists during World War II, which was no “war for democracy” but, at bottom, an interimperialist conflict for global political and economic domination. While sharply opposing all the imperialist combatants, Trotskyists stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union which, despite its Stalinist degeneration, remained a workers state where capitalist and landlord exploitation had been overthrown in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After the war, like their American and British senior partners, the Canadian rulers welcomed with open arms thousands of Nazi war criminals as “freedom fighters” in the imperialists’ crusade to destroy the Soviet Union.
After settling in Montreal, Morgentaler was denied entry to the English-language McGill University which, like many Canadian universities, had quotas limiting the admittance of Jews. Instead, he completed his medical studies at the francophone Université de Montréal and in 1955 established a practice in the city’s working-class, French-speaking east end.
Quebec at that time was still very much in the grip of the Catholic church; the oppression of women was profound. Divorce was prohibited, and until 1964 married women were legally deemed to lack the “capacity” even to sign contracts. The society was shaped by the national oppression of the French-speaking Québécois nation by the British-derived bourgeoisie, which worked in league with the Catholic hierarchy.
The 1960s and early ’70s saw tumultuous social upheaval in Quebec, including in the francophone working class, whose struggles were fuelled in large part by opposition to national oppression. The dominance of the Catholic church was broken. Among other things, birth rates plummeted from one of the highest in the world to one of the lowest. It was amid this turmoil that Henry Morgentaler entered the political arena as a secular humanist fighting against the confessional school system. Alongside the Mouvement Laïque de Langue Française, he launched the Committee for Neutral Schools.
At this time, abortion and all forms of contraception were illegal and Canada’s laws were among the strictest in the world. Maria Corsillo, who helped found and today manages the Scott abortion clinic in Toronto, recalls the period vividly:
“I was a seven-year-old immigrant and I used to go with women to the doctor and translate for them. ‘Tell him I can’t have another,’ they’d say to me, and the doctor would always respond, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’”
—Now [Toronto], 6-13 June
By now a prominent and outspoken crusader for abortion rights, in 1967 Morgentaler addressed a parliamentary hearing calling for the legalization of abortion. He was soon besieged by desperate women pleading for abortions and in January 1968 he consciously defied the law and performed his first abortion. In 1969, the federal Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau decriminalized contraception and somewhat eased the laws against abortion while keeping it in the Criminal Code. Now, to obtain an abortion, women had to win the approval of a panel of three doctors, the degrading “therapeutic abortion committee.”
That same year, Morgentaler closed his family practice to devote himself to providing abortions. “I decided to break the law to provide a necessary medical service because women were dying at the hands of butchers and incompetent quacks, and there was no one there to help them,” he told another biographer, Catherine Dunphy. “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” (cited in New York Times, 29 May). He quickly became renowned for his empathy and skill. He pioneered new and safer abortion techniques, and over the years trained hundreds of doctors to perform the procedure.
Dr. Morgentaler was first charged under the new abortion law in 1970, and thus began the succession of trials and acquittals that dominated his life and the fight for abortion rights for the next two decades. He was acquitted three times by largely working-class francophone Québécois juries. In a legally unprecedented move, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned his 1974 acquittal and sentenced him to 18 months in jail. He served ten months and was finally freed in early 1976.
Cold War II and the War on Women
In the early 1980s, access to abortion throughout Canada became even worse. In Toronto the need was desperate. In 1981, Women’s College Hospital performed just three abortions per week, while Toronto General, which received some 75 requests per day, did six per week, but only on Thursdays. Fewer and fewer hospitals even had the wretched therapeutic abortion committees. Morgentaler returned to the battle, and in 1983 opened clinics in Winnipeg and Toronto.
The backlash was swift and violent. In both cities, police staged jackboot raids on his clinics. The then-ruling Manitoba New Democratic Party was in the forefront of this persecution. The NDP’s attorney general, Roland Penner, vowed to prosecute any violations of the reactionary abortion laws, and he did. Morgentaler later spoke of his naiveté in believing that “since the NDP has a platform supporting freedom of choice, they would refrain from prosecution.” A few months later, when we interviewed Dr. Morgentaler for Women and Revolution, he told us:
“And the Winnipeg police raided the clinic twice, twice when operations were being done. They really were quasi-fascist acts. Somewhat like a police state—you know? It’s never happened before anywhere and I think that the prosecution in Winnipeg is probably one of the most vicious that I’ve ever seen.”
—“‘Pro-Life’ Gestapo Raids Abortion Clinics,” W&R No. 27 (Winter 1983-84)
State repression fuelled anti-woman violence and vile anti-Semitism. In 1983, a man armed with garden shears attacked Morgentaler outside his Toronto clinic. Soon after, arsonists tried to destroy the clinic and it was continually besieged by mobs backed by the Catholic church. These “pro-life” fanatics were the shock troops in the bourgeoisie’s war on women, part and parcel of the then escalating war on “godless communism,” which sought to roll back every working-class gain from the Russian Revolution to trade unions. This was the reactionary climate of the renewed Cold War offensive against the Soviet Union, which despite its Stalinist degeneration stood as a roadblock to the imperialists’ drive to reconquer the entire globe for capitalist exploitation.
Throughout the 1980s, the Trotskyist League stood out for our defense of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratically deformed workers states of East Europe. For this, we were frequently attacked and excluded from protests, including International Women’s Day demonstrations, by reformist leftists, feminists and their often male enforcers. The “pro-choice” reformists and feminists lined up behind the imperialist drive against the USSR, thereby trampling on women’s rights. In 1978-79, when a modernizing, Soviet-allied government in Afghanistan moved to implement modest reforms for women such as lowering the bride price and instituting education, tribalist Islamic reactionaries backed by the CIA erupted in violence and terror. When the Soviet Union sent its Red Army into Afghanistan in late 1979 at the invitation of the left-nationalist government, the reformist left internationally echoed the imperialist hue and cry against this.
Poland was a particular flashpoint. When the oppositional Solidarność movement emerged in 1980, the feminists, along with much of the left, the NDP and the labour bureaucracy, hailed this clerical-nationalist outfit, which was also promoted by the Pope and the CIA. After it consolidated around an openly reactionary program for capitalist counterrevolution a year later, we raised the call to “Stop Solidarność counterrevolution!” even as we denounced the many crimes of the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy. After Solidarność came to power in 1989, capitalism was restored. In 1993 it made virtually all abortions illegal.
The feminists who organized the abortion rights campaigns of the 1970s and ’80s generally supported the social-democratic NDP. Many were also supporters of ostensibly socialist groups which, in true reformist fashion, tailored their demands to be acceptable to bourgeois liberals. As feminists, they drew the sex line rather than the class line, framing their campaigns around single-issue calls such as “repeal the abortion laws,” later reduced to “choice.” But neither of these slogans begins to address the needs of poor, immigrant and Native women who need free and unrestricted access to abortion. The wealthy will always be able to get medical care, including abortions. Indeed, more than once during his legal trials, Morgentaler noted that his patients included the wives, sisters and daughters of the same politicians and judges that were leading the prosecution against him.
The local Toronto abortion rights coalition made its stance all too clear in 1977, when it voted down the demand for “Free abortion on demand” put forward by a representative of the Immigrant Women’s Centre. The latter withdrew from the coalition, which was so obviously stacked against poor and minority women. The Trotskyist League has always fought for free abortion on demand, for free, quality health care for all and free 24-hour child care, part of our broader struggle for women’s liberation through socialist revolution.
Murderous War on Abortion Rights
In 1984, Dr. Morgentaler and Drs. Robert Scott and Leslie Smoling were acquitted of charges laid in Toronto the year before, a major victory in a trial in which the crown attorney equated Morgentaler, an Auschwitz survivor, with Hitler. The judge all but ordered the jury to convict. As we wrote in “All Honor to Dr. Morgentaler!” (SC No. 62, November 1984), “Even by standards of bourgeois ‘justice’ the trial was stacked against the doctors, and aimed at whipping up an anti-abortion frenzy.” Outrageously, the Ontario attorney general appealed, and yet another jury acquittal was set aside and a new trial ordered. Morgentaler in turn appealed to the federal Supreme Court. No friend of women’s rights, the court evidently saw that putting Morgentaler behind bars was a losing battle and accordingly determined that the abortion laws were unconstitutional.
The anti-woman bigots quickly launched a counteroffensive. As in the U.S., the violence of the 1980s gave way to the even more murderous and open terror against abortion providers of the 1990s. Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic was firebombed and destroyed in 1992. Eight doctors have been murdered in the U.S. since 1977 and there have been many more attempted murders. In Canada in 1994, Dr. Garson Romalis barely survived gunshot wounds; in 2000 he was again injured by an anti-abortion would-be murderer. In the 1990s, two other Canadian abortion providers, Drs. Hugh Short and Jack Fainman, were shot and injured.
The anti-abortion forces want to bring back the days when abortion was illegal and untold numbers of women were butchered or mutilated by back-alley or self-induced abortions. Although abortion continues to be legal, the steady drumbeat of anti-abortion reaction has recently become louder. Largely hidden from view is the continued threat of violence against abortion providers.
Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s hard-right coterie—including his cabinet—is full of religious “end-of-days” revivalists who are vicious opponents of abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, evolution and much else. His tenure has greatly increased the influence of Christian fundamentalists in Ottawa. Recent years have seen a flurry of reactionary bills introduced by anti-abortion MPs. One would have made killing a fetus a separate offence when a pregnant woman was murdered. Another sought to create a parliamentary committee to debate when human life begins. More recently, three Tory MPs demanded that the RCMP investigate hundreds of abortions as “homicides,” while anti-abortion bigots have started campaigning against “sex-selective” abortions as a wedge to roll back abortion rights.
The attacks on abortion rights are heavily conditioned by the level of class struggle. The working class has the social power necessary to mobilize in defense of women’s rights and those of all the oppressed. Many Canadian unions support abortion rights. But the union movement has been on the defensive for many years, and the gains won through past struggles are being rolled back everywhere by a ruling class bent on ensuring that the working class pays for the economic crisis of the capitalist system. The leaders of the unions aim to contain working-class struggle within the bounds of capitalism.
Capitalism and Women’s Liberation
Shaped by the torment of the Holocaust, Henry Morgentaler was driven, in his own words, “to feel vibrant, enjoying life, and to become a full person. To be open to experience—active and useful.... Active, as a sort of mover of history, doing something useful and important.” This powerful impulse led him to believe that “under some circumstances, it is imperative to defy authority” (Morgentaler: The Doctor Who Couldn’t Turn Away). He was an exuberant and talented man who spoke Polish, Yiddish, French and English, and could soothe a patient in almost any language. He loved women, had many affairs and was married three times. He never really stopped fighting on behalf of women and their rights.
An atheist, Morgentaler found in secular humanism a worldview that satisfied him. He was not a Marxist, but he agreed to be interviewed for our Marxist journal Women and Revolution in 1983. His interests in fighting on behalf of the oppressed went well beyond the question of abortion rights. A decade after the W&R interview, he joined other prominent intellectuals internationally in saluting a successful anti-Nazi action carried out by our German comrades, writing: “As a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust I commend the supporters of the Spartakist Workers Party and the Committee for Social Defense for removing the swastika flag near the Brandenburg Gate” (see SC No. 91, Spring 1993).
Henry Morgentaler’s personal and political history testifies to the fact that abortion is not a narrow “women’s issue.” Indeed, it is a class issue: an essential democratic right, the removal of which would redound against all working people. The status of women is inextricably linked to that of the working class, which is uniquely situated to bring capitalist rule, the basis for women’s oppression today, to an end. The liberation of women requires a socialist revolution that will uproot the private property system and create a worldwide socialized planned economy. Only then will society be able to replace the institution of the family with socialized childcare and housework, bringing women into full participation in all areas of social and political life.
This perspective requires the forging of a revolutionary vanguard party, entailing a struggle in the working class to break the hold of the social-democratic NDP, which is committed to upholding the rule of capital. Understanding that the interests of the capitalists and the workers are counterposed, such a party would intervene into social struggle as the most historically conscious and advanced element of the proletariat. It would defend the rights of minorities and Native people. It would advocate Quebec independence to oppose the dominant Anglo chauvinism and get the national question off the agenda. It would champion free abortion on demand, fighting for the program of women’s liberation through socialist revolution. This is the perspective fought for by the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste, and it is in this spirit that we say: All honour to Dr. Morgentaler!