Farewell Dr. Morgentaler

morgentaler*Dr. Henry Morgentaler on Feb. 10, 1976 (Photo by Chuck Mitchell of The Canadian Press)

In 1969 my Canadian homeland, true North strong and free, maintained some of the most stringent anti-abortion legislation in the world. Women had no choice. Rape, incest, age, risk… nothing would stand in the way of my former government’s relentless control of reproductive rights. One man stood up for choice.

A Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Montreal after being liberated from Dachau, Henry Morgentaler saw a woman’s right to choose as among the most basic of human rights. When faced with the steep mortality rates of women choosing backroom abortions, he began performing safe but illegal abortions in his private clinic. Over the years he was attacked, arrested, firebombed, harassed and prosecuted, but nothing ever swayed him from his conviction that a woman’s body is her own.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler died last week. When I read the news, I cried. In fact, I cried intermittently for several days. I am not a militant pro-lifer. While I support a woman’s right to choose, I oppose non-therapeutic third trimester abortions and feel a little squeamish when confronted about defending my uber rational pro-choice position. And yet for some strange reason living in a world without this great man makes me really sad.

How women judge each other’s life choices is something that has weighed on me heavily for some time. Several weeks ago I attended a conference on the rights of women in childbirth. I sat in an auditorium with about a million women (or so the estrogen levels would suggest) most of whom were pregnant, nursing, midwives or doulas, and for hours I sat and listened to one speaker after the next demanding that women be allowed to give birth the way the good Lord intended. At home, or in a tub, or while hugging a tree and singing joyously through contractions. Of course, though, women MUST be discouraged from using any medical intervention unless absolutely necessary. Voluntary C-sections? Doctors who permit that ought to be stripped of their medical licenses. Epidurals? Meh, all women need to do is BREATHE and that pain will just melt away. Episiotomies? Those are for lazy nurses and doctors who just want to make it to happy hour.

At the break I could barely make it out the door, tears and sweat and simmering rage threatening to undo whatever professional composure I had maintained up to that point. It took some time for me to understand why I was so upset. I felt judged. I felt like a failure. I felt like my drug induced, pain managed, hospital births made me less of a woman. I had given over my greatest strength to the paternalistic medical institution, and had deprived my babies of a ‘good’ birth.

So I cried. And cried. And then I got pissed. When I went back in to the conference, the Million Mom March had divided up into discussion groups. I joined one entitled “Midwives and doulas, working together”. For an hour these women tore into each other in a way I had only ever seen at a Century 21 sidewalk sale. The midwives attacked the doulas for endangering women, the doulas attacked the midwives for using medical interventions on women who should have been allowed to birth naturally, and I took a breath, raised my hand, and told these women that they had all missed the point. Women have the right to choose. They have the right to choose anything that happens, or does not happen, to their bodies.

If I want to have a C-section on 12/12/12 because it’ll look cool on my kid’s driver’s license, or because I am terrified of birth, or because that’s what my Momma did, so be it.

If I want to give birth on a pile of leaves while the Eastern wind lifts my hair and the trees sing kumbaya, or in a baby pool in the middle of my living room (you know who you are), so be it.

If I want to bottle feed so I don’t have to give my body over to this squalling thing who has already taken my figure, or if I want to nurse this squalling thing until it’s reading Nietszche, so be it.

If I don’t want children at all, so be it.

If I want children but am not married, or can’t get married to the love of my life because it’s illegal, so be it.

If I can’t conceive and choose to adopt, or use a surrogate, or use IVF, or a sperm donor, so be it.

And if I want to terminate a pregnancy because I’m too tired, or too poor, or too sick, or too sad, or too busy, so be it.

That’s the thing about rights. They demand that we give people the choice to do things that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves. They demand that we look at each person and see them as a rational, reasonable, intelligent being capable of making a life for themselves and their families, and they demand that we leave them to it. The hard part is not judging them for it.

At the Conference of Procreative Catharsis I realized that I felt judged by other women. We are supposed to be built for birth and nursing. We are born for this act of bringing new life into the world. But my body was not so cooperative, and my experience was not so idyllic. I’m pretty sure that many women don’t hypno water hippie birth, and I’m pretty sure that many would never want to. So why is that the black-belt of pushing out babies? Why do women judge each other when they ought to support each other?

Dr. Morgentaler fought for a woman’s right to choose. He fought for women to be able to hold on to their dignity while making the most difficult decision of their lives. He fought for women to feel safe, and not judged. Dr. Morgentaler succeeded. Abortion is safe and legal throughout Canada because of Dr. Morgentaler’s belief that infringing on a person’s right to bodily integrity is criminal. Giving women this choice has given them power over their own lives.

Many people think that being pro-choice means being pro-killing babies. I prefer to believe that it is an attitude towards our fellow citizens. It is respecting others and expecting to be respected in return. It is not judging others and expecting compassion and understanding in return.

When I spoke up in that room, nearly every woman came to me and embraced me. Many apologized for having been so narrow in their definition of choice. That acceptance and respect and kindness touched me more deeply than I would have thought possible, and  when I heard that Dr. Morgentaler had passed away, I felt tremendous gratitude for the man whose acceptance and respect and kindness gave Canadian women the right to choose.

Farewell, Dr. Morgentaler. Baruch Dayan Ha Emet, blessed be the one true judge.




About the Author
Corinne Berzon is currently getting her PhD in bioethics. When she is not reading dense philosophical texts or dancing around the house to dubstep with her three daughters, she teaches yoga, runs in no particular direction and watches inappropriate television with her husband; Corinne loves Israel, but remains deeply and darkly cynical because it is more entertaining than the alternative.