January 1

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    Henry Morgentaler

    Henry Morgentaler

    On this date in 1923, abortion doctor and pro-choice activist Henry Morgentaler, born Henryk Morgentaler, was born in Lodz, Poland. His parents were Jewish socialists. The Gestapo murdered his father in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland. Morgentaler, his mother and two siblings were forced to live in Lodz’s ghetto, where his sister died, until 1944. The Nazis then sent Morgentaler, his mother and his brother to Auschwitz, where they killed his mother and the brothers did forced labor until they were sent to Dachau, which Allied forces liberated in 1945. 

    He emigrated to Canada in 1950 and graduated from the University of Montreal’s medical school in 1953. He began his career as a general practitioner but transitioned to family planning when he saw the need. He performed his first abortion in 1968 and opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969.

    “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. 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.” (Morgantaler: A Difficult Hero, by Catherine Dunphy, 1996.)

    Morgantaler battled the Catholic Church, his clinics were raided by police and harassed by pickets and he was arrested four times for performing abortions. Each time he was acquitted by jurors but was sentenced to 18 months in prison when one of his acquittals was appealed. Morgantaler was released after 10 months when he suffered a heart attack.

    Another acquittal that was appealed went to the Canadian Supreme Court, resulting in a historic 1988 decision overturning a law restricting abortions to hospitals and to those in which the pregnancy endangered the woman. Even in Canada, his actions were controversial and after several abortion doctors were attacked and even murdered, he took many safety precautions, including wearing a bulletproof vest. 

    He was active in humanist organizations in Montreal, and in 1975 the American Humanist Association made him its Humanist of the Year. He received many other honors and recognition for his work, including induction into the Order of Canada in 2008. Morgentaler married three times and divorced twice. He had four children: Goldie, Bamie, Yann and Benny. At the time of his death at age 90, he was married to Arlene Leibovich. (D. 2013)

    PHOTO: rabbleradio under CC 2.0.

    “In Canada, you have fewer religious fanatics, there is much less violence in Canada and it’s a much more tolerant society.”

    — Morgentaler, quoted in “Sniper Attacks on Doctors Create Climate of Fear in Canada” (New York Times, Oct. 29, 1998)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano
    © Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

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