On January 28, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Criminal Code provisions which made abortion illegal in Canada. Only 35 years ago! Known as the “Morgentaler decision”, the case stands as one of Canada’s strongest legal precedents for the advancement of human rights.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler (1923-2013) was born in Poland but moved to Canada in 1950, having survived the holocaust. He started a medical practice in Montreal in 1955; In 1967, Dr. Morgentaler presented a brief before a House of Commons Health and Welfare Committee that was investigating illegal abortion. At the time, medical practitioners could, under Canada’s criminal code, face life in prison for attempting to induce an abortion; women could also face up to two years in prison. Typical of his deep compassion and humanism, Morgentaler presented the position that any woman should have the right to end her pregnancy without risking death.
Initially, Dr. Morgentaler refused requests to end pregnancies, referring to two other physicians providing abortions. In 1968, however, Dr. Morgentaler founded the Montreal Morgentaler Clinic, the first freestanding clinic to offer safe abortion services in Canada. It was established when Dr. Morgentaler, as an activist with the Canadian Humanist Association, began protesting Canada’s restrictive laws. The clinic was situated in the same house where Dr. Morgentaler had his family medicine practice, and remained there until 1995.
Despite raides by policy, criminal charges and conviction, firebombing of his Toronto clinic and decades of opposition, Dr. Morgentaler persevered in his fight to advance and sustain human rights of women in Canada and was appointed to the Order of Canada for his commitment to increased health care options for women in 2008. Polling indicted that two-thirds of Canadians agreed at that time.
Should you wish to learn more about Dr. Morgentaler and the Morgentaler Decision, you may wish to visit the 25th-Anniversary Celebratory website which remains available at this time.
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