He fought against what he thought was an unjust law, campaigning for what he, and many, sees as a women’s rights issue.
To his supporters he is a champion of freedom and a symbol of triumph.
To his detractors he is nothing but a murderer.
And he’s just been awarded Canada’s highest civilian honour: the Order of Canada. Its motto based on the Biblical verse Hebrews 11:16, is: “they desire a better country.”
Dr. Henry Morgentaler is a frail looking older gentleman, clad in glasses, balding, and with a distinct white beard. Born in Poland in 1923, he survived the Nazi systemic slaughter of innocents during the Holocaust, despite being placed in its most horrifying death chamber: Auschwitz.
He came to Canada and in 1969, violating the law of the day, opened his clinic and began to perform illegal procedures.
Morgentaler was imprisoned for a period and after years of legal wrangling, which saw conviction followed by subsequent acquittals and reversals, abortion was finally legalized in 1988 (fifteen years after Roe v. Wade in the United States).
By his very profession Morgentaler has always drawn controversy, from pro- and anti-abortionists alike. Having retired from his medical practice, he is still a powerful figure for those who campaign for women’s and abortion rights. He has had an honorary degree bestowed upon him and given the “Award for Outstanding Service to Humanity” by the Canadian Labour Congress.
The Order of Canada is awarded to exemplary individuals, and Morgentaler was handed this prestige on account of, “his commitment to increased health care options for women, his determined efforts to influence Canadian public policy and his leadership in humanist and civil liberties organizations.”
The outrage began even prior to his award, of which the good Doctor declared, “I deserve it.” The Catholic Church in Canada has come out strongly against this preferment, with one Catholic Order holder having already returned their award.
The irony of Morgentaler’s award – and about the man himself – himself is two-fold.
First: a man who survived the Holocaust, which butchered countless children, went on to perform operations that ended the lives of further countless children. The lives he ended however were arguably even more defenceless than those in Auschwitz.
Second: the person who is “head” of the Order of Canada is a staunch opponent of abortion by the very nature of her being: Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada.
As Supreme Governor of the Church of England (the Episcopalian Church as it is called in the United States), and “Defender of the Faith,” Elizabeth II cannot condone abortion.
The Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, by her position as Chancellor of the Order, made the final decision to appoint Morgentaler.
It would be interesting to discover if Jean, or any one in the Advisory Council (who, as it is aptly named, advise on appointments to the Order), even thought of the reservations Her Majesty undoubtedly would hold about the appointment of an abortionist to the Order.
While I do not wish to see abortion criminalized and consigned to back alleys where both mother and foetus could possibly be killed, it is a sad day in Canada when someone who ended so many lives is given such a prestigious honor.
I, do, however, salute Morgentaler for his general advocating of women’s rights, and for not resorting to violence and for challenging laws he felt were unjust through the courts (despite breaking the law in the 1960s).
But to say he “desire[s] a better country”?
I’ll leave that open to discussion.