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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