The man who brought down the Canadian abortion law

Henry Morgentaler died recently. He was the man who almost single handedly brought down the Canadian abortion law. Sickened by what was happening in filthy, clandestine clinics he began doing safe, albeit illegal, procedures in his office. He was arrested but always maintained that a jury would never find him guilty. And he was right.

Years later when I was in medical school and then residency I marveled at this confidence, but of course I was looking at his case with the eyes of someone who, as Morgentaler himself said, had “the knowledge and experience that women no longer die of abortion.”

I had never seen an amateur abortion in Canada (though sadly, I have seen the ramifications of them in the United States). My only experience at the time was skilled surgeons in clean settings with sterilized equipment. So one night in residency when I happened to be on call with a more senior OB/GYN I asked.

“Oh Jen,” he said taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “It was horrible. You have no idea. Every night we would admit two or three from the emergency department. That’s one hospital in one city. Every night, two or three.”

He continued.

“They were septic … perforated bowels and bellies full of pus and we couldn’t do a damn thing but take out their mangled organs, give them penicillin, and hope for the best. You have to remember, this is before we had the fancy antibiotics that we have now and we didn’t have CT scans or ultrasounds to help make a diagnosis.”

“Every night two or three, can you imagine?” He repeated himself to drive the point home. Appropriately done abortions by skilled providers have such a low complication rate he knew that I had seen few complications from legal abortions, never mind a complication from a back alley procedure.

“And they were almost always alone,” he added. “Boyfriend or husband didn’t know or worse, didn’t care. Often they were too ashamed to tell their families, but a few lucky ones had girlfriends with them.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“The worst, God, I’ll never forget. She was one of our gynecology floor nurses. She’d cared for these girls before and she knew what could happen. She was beautiful, and smart, and kind. One of our best nurses. I was on call when she arrived. She was grey, had a low blood pressure, and a rigid belly. She must have known what that meant as we wheeled her back to the operating room. She was full of pus and so we cleaned her out as best we could. I was the one who called her family. Her father hung up on me.”

He paused and wiped his eyes. “You know Jen, we all took turns sitting with her as she died.”

Most jury members would have known, or at least heard of, a woman who had sought out an illegal abortion. Some would have known a woman who was maimed or even died from an illegal abortion. A few would have known more than one. It was possible that one or more jury members herself had even had an illegal abortion, safe or otherwise. The jury would also know that while abortion was technically legal in Canada at the time that it required approval by a three member panel and so actually accessing an abortion was another thing. Many women were still forced to go elsewhere and suffer the consequences.

Henry Morgentaler was tried and acquitted three times in Quebec between 1973 and 1975. In 1976 the Quebec government announced it would not longer prosecute appropriately trained physicians who offered safe office procedures.

Knowing what I know now, it doesn’t surprise me at all.

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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  • maggiebea

    I remember three from those awful years before Roe v Wade.

    One was the daughter of a coworker. The hospital called to say ‘your daughter’s dying, you better hurry if you want to see her.’ The man who drove that parent to the hospital went home, got drunk, and offered to teach his virginal teenage daughter how to use a condom, lest she be the next with an accidental pregnancy.

    One was a college friend whose boyfriend had a ‘good’ name. She was dropped off on a streetcorner to meet a stranger with a code name, told to bring cash and tell her friends to meet her in one hour on a different corner. All the precautions were on the abortionist’s side, the deadliest risk on the woman’s side. It was done by a licensed OB-GYN under office conditions, without an assistant, without anesthetic. Within the hour she was back on the street, wobbly and pale, with a vial of penicillin tablets in her pocket and the instruction not to go to the emergency room unless she was hemorrhaging or had a fever higher than 104F. Less than a year later that doctor was in jail, caught and convicted of helping desperate women get halfway safely unpregnant.

    The last was a news photo of a 20-something I had known, found curled on the floor of a bloody motel room after an attempt with some implement. The abortionist was never found; it didn’t really seem like the police were looking. Her parents had thrown her out for getting pregnant.

  • paganheart

    My father-in-law was a medical resident in Detroit in the early 1960s, and he also has horror stories from the pre-Roe days. He remembers that nearly every day at least one woman or teenage girl (and usually more) showed up at his hospital bleeding to death or dying from sepsis, thanks to a back-alley abortion. Some were poor women of color, some were “nice” white girls from “churchgoing” middle-class families. The youngest he remembers was only 13 years old. The oldest was an Irish Catholic woman in her forties, who already had 10 other children. He also remembers some nurses and even doctors who walked away and refused to help; one of his supervisors even told him that such women were whores who deserved their fates.

    At the same time, he recalls, it was whispered among hospital staff and residents that if your sister or girlfriend was “in trouble,” there were a couple of doctors at the hospital who could direct you to another doctor in town, who would “take care of it” after hours in his office, for the right price (in cash of course.) One of his fellow residents pawned his grandfather’s watch so his girlfriend could have an abortion in relative safety instead of the filthy kitchen table of a back-alley operator, where her roommate had died.

    My father-in-law also remembers the teenage daughter of a wealthy and prominent businessman, who had donated a great deal of money to the hospital, being admitted late one night for an “appendectomy,” then quickly discharged the next morning (not common practice back then.) Word on the grapevine was that the head of OB/GYN had actually performed an abortion on her, as a “special favor” to her father. It was also common practice back then, he says, for wealthy businessmen to fly their inconveniently pregnant daughters (and mistresses) over to Europe so they could get safe abortions in countries like Sweden where it was legal. They covered up by telling everyone else it was a “summer vacation” or “graduation trip.” And many of these same wealthy people spoke loudly and vociferously against the idea of abortion being made legal in the US. The hypocrisy sickened him.

    My father is as politically conservative a man as you’ll find, and he is not an OB/GYN by training, but he is also vehemently pro-choice that he says if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, he would become one of those doctors who would perform abortions even in the face of arrest, because he has seen firsthand what happens when abortion is illegal. Simply put, women die. Unless they have money and means.

    Perhaps some abortion foes would change their beliefs if they had to watched firsthand as women died from illegal abortions, as my father did. Unfortunately, I believe many of them would be more like those who turned away and refused to help, their hippocratic oaths be damned. Because for the most fanatical pro-lifers, it’s not about “saving babies,” despite all their claims. It’s about controlling the behavior of women, in particular controlling when, where and why they have sex. Because many of them believe that women were put on earth for the sole purpose of breeding and raising children, and do not exist for any other reason (my Sunday school teacher actually told me that.) The idea that they might to do anything else, or that they might want to actually have sex for other reasons (like, say, affection or pleasure) seems to utterly terrify them. What exactly to they really fear? Are they just miserable, unhappy people who have been denied the choice to have happiness and pleasure in their own lives, and think everyone else should be as miserable as they are? Sometimes I wonder.

    Regardless, it is sickening and embarrassing that 40 years later, we still have to fight this battle in the US. I wish we were more like Canada, where they seem to have successfully been able to tell their religious fundamentalists to (pun not intended) to go to hell.

    • ninguem

      “…..My father is as politically conservative a man as you’ll find, and he is not an OB/GYN by training, but he is also so vehemently pro-choice that he says if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, he would become one of those doctors who would perform abortions even in the face of arrest, because he has seen firsthand what happens when abortion is illegal. Simply put, women die. Unless they have money and means…..”

      Even if Roe were overturned, the effect is not “abortions become illegal”. The effect is to revert abortion law back to the states.

      Abortion was legal in four USA states in 1973, when it was still illegal in Canada, and the remaining states were all to a greater or lesser extent, liberalizing their laws at the time. The effect of overturning Roe in my area is zero, it was legal in 1973.

      If Roe were overturned, the states would have to decide their own abortion laws. Even Ruth Bader Ginsberg has suggested that might be a good idea.

      The chance of having a state completely outlaw abortion is minimal. Maybe one or two at most. Look at the storm in Texas, over outlawing late-term abortion and requiring upgrades of clinics to hospital or surgicenter grade. There is no way, even Texas would outlaw first or even second-term abortion.

      If one or two USA states don’t outlaw abortion…….there’s one or two Canadian provinces that don’t offer them either. Legal on paper, but not done.

      • T H

        In a time when citizens cannot decide whether to have sex-ed in school, insurance companies and individual pharmacists are not offering CONTRACEPTION because of ‘moral issues,’ and no politician will come right out and say that they wish to protect the rights of women to obtain safe terminations, I would submit that there is a decided problem with reproductive rights in the U.S.

  • Bladerunner9

    A former roommate of mine was a Navy Corpsman in Korea. Despite his nice picture of himself in navy gear,sitting on the mantle,he never seemed to get good healthcare.He was an independent painting contractor.I asked him why he didn’t just go to the VA and he told me he couldn’t.He had been given a dishonorable discharge. Seems he …and all the corpsman …were valuable commodities in the 50s. At every port,up and down both coasts,women would meet them in bars,point at their medical insignias and ask if they could perform an abortion for $1000. They had medical training,they had knowledge of what comprised a safe abortion they needed was a place to perform it. Eventually,he and many others got caught and he was discharged dishonorably. Younger people need to hear these realities of pre-Roe days. They were ugly and stupid.No one likes this issue.No one. But Americans hate hypocrisy even more than abortion. As they get wind of rich girls getting safe abortions and poor girls dying,the whole delusion set forth by some will fall aprt just as it did in the 60s.