Dr. Morgentaler passed away at the age of 90 today, and as he did so, one of the giants of modern Canada left the land of the living. Dr. Morgentaler was a larger-than-life public figure who–as all the news media are saying–was a polarizing figure. Some called him a murderer; others, an activist for women’s reproductive rights.
I’ve been in the position of belonging to both camps. In the days when I was a religious fundamentalist, I did call Dr. Morgentaler a murderer, and I concurred with a “Messianic Jew” I knew (a holocaust survivor) who said that he wished that Dr. Morgentaler had died in Auschwitz. I admired a relative for naming her farm-cat “Morgentaler” (he ate the other cats kittens). Once, when in grade 6, I went to Simon Fraser University to watch Dr. Morgentaler be defeated by William Lane Craig in a debate that turned over whether Christianity or humanism provided a better guide to human existence. Even in the liberal environs of SFU on Burnaby Mountain, Dr. Morgentaler lost the debate.
Now I know all about Dr. Craig’s debating tricks and am no longer religious at all. Perhaps more importantly, I have also sat through two abortions with two different women (one of whom was my girlfriend at the time, the other a friend I wished to support by being at her side at her own request).
As I see it, Dr. Morgentaler was motivated by love, and specifically, the love of humanity, the love of women as fully autonomous, participating members of a mature democracy. I’m sure that Dr. Morgentaler did not enjoy killing fetuses. No: it was love that motivated him to take the most important case of our time all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
I don’t want to call an abortion simply the “terminating of a pregnancy” because obviously a fetus is a life: a human life. And human life is, as we all know, complicated. From prostitution to the exposing of unwanted babies, life serves up what many would prefer not to acknowledge. But difficulty is intrinsic to human life, and the humanist says: now that we’re here, let’s make the best of each difficult situation that comes our way by treating all with dignity and respect.
When I sat with those two women who had abortions performed, I felt sadness. The first one was indeed mine, and although I had not wanted the abortion to be performed, I recognized the right of my girlfriend to choose. We discussed it calmly, but once she made her decision, I never reproached her, and I sought to support her as much as I could. The second time I sat in an abortion clinic was many years later, and it was because I was asked to by a friend who was feeling vulnerable as she sought to end her own unwanted pregnancy. Knowing her struggle and her integrity, I held her hand as she waited in the doctor’s office and just tried to be there for her, without speaking many words. On both occasions, I felt a certain profound sadness that a life was about to be taken away, a sense of reverence and humility at the responsibility of participating in one of the most serious of all human choices, but also a deep recognition of the fact and role of love in human life.
As Dr. Morgentaler said so often, loved and wanted babies do not grow up to be murderers or rapists. This is overstated, surely, but it is undeniable that there is a certain truth in his words. Then, too, there’s the love between two people, a love that can produce an unwanted pregnancy. There’s the love of friendship, of supporting that person for whom you care in her own time of decision. Finally, there is the love of oneself, and I do not mean this in a narcissistic sense. What one has to give to one’s children comes out of the love that one has for oneself. For many women in many situations, the best thing they can do to love themselves in a truly difficult situation is to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. There are a whole host of reasons: physical health, economic problems, relational doubts. Whatever the case, be it resolved that women deserve the rights to exercise authority over their own bodies and destinies, and not only that, but to lead and decide any discussion of the topic that concerns them more than any.
One thing is sure: in 1988, Dr. Morgentaler won the most important debate at the Supreme Court of Canada when it struck down Canada’s laws prohibiting abortions. In so doing, he became–like the ground-breaking gay medical practitioner Dr. Peter, who died of AIDS and founded a hospice that has touched the lives of so many, or like the trailblazing Dr. Suzuki, who sought to bring an awareness of the plight of our planet while increasing our sense of responsibility for it–a modern Canadian giant. The current Conservative Party that governs Canada might be peopled by many who would oppose reproductive rights for women, or marriage rights for gays, or the right for all of us to live in a healthy world with clean water, land, and air. But even our recalcitrant governing party members cannot take away all of these rights so easily, try as they might. For that we can be thankful for the legacy of Dr. Morgentaler and others like him.