Today we mourn the loss of Henry Morgentaler, who passed away at the age of 90 after dedicating his life to the fight for reproductive justice. It is mass movements that change the world, but Morgentaler shows the importance of courageous individuals within them.
The mainstream media claim he represented a “controversial debate,” as if women’s rights were some fringe academic discussion. But Morgentaler and the reproductive justice movement made a real difference in the lives of millions of women.
Morgentaler’s entire life was a fight against oppression. He was born in Poland in 1923 and experienced anti-Semitism as a child. His father was active in the socialist Jewish Labour Bund and was an early victim of the nazi occupation.
Then in 1944 the rest of Morgentaler’s family was shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and he never saw his mother again. Morgentaler survived the holocaust, but weighed only 70 pounds upon his release from Auschwitz.
Canada’s abortion law
In 1950 he moved to Canada, completed his medical education and opened a general practice. In 1967 he presented to the House of Commons, arguing women should have safe access to abortion, and was inundated with requests at his clinic: “I hadn’t expected the avalanche of requests and didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem in immediate, human terms. I answered, ‘I sympathize with you. I know your problem, but the law won’t let me help you. If I do help you, I’ll go to jail, I lose my practice—I have a wife and two children. I’m sorry, but I just can’t!”
The rise of class society subordinated women, and with the capitalist state came severe restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom. Abortion and contraception were criminalized in Canada in 1869, and thousands of women died in illegal back-alley abortions.
In 1969 contraception was legalized but abortion was only allowed through “therapeutic abortion committees,” who would sit in judgement to decide whether or not women should have safe access to abortion. Wealthy women had access, but poor, working class and oppressed women did not.
Confronting the state
Morgentaler had suffered the worst expression of state violence in his early life, but decided to put his life again on the line and offer safe abortions. The first police raid of his clinic came in 1970, but he continued. In 1973 he publicly declared he has performed 5,000 safe abortions, openly challenging the law.
From 1973 to 1975 Morgentaler was put on trial three times, and each time the jury--often a majority of Catholic men---refused to find him guilty. Morgentaler defended himself by arguing the case of women, and women took the stand to tell their story and convince the jury the laws were unjust. In 1975 the superior court overturned the jury verdict and sent Morgentaler to jail, where he suffered his first heart attack. He was later released and in 1976 Quebec declared clinic abortions legal.
Leading a movement
Morgentaler could have stopped there, having succeeded in changing Quebec’s law. But women in Toronto launched the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) to build a movement that would fight for reproductive rights, overthrow the federal abortion law and defend clinics providing medically insured abortions. Upon OCAC’s invitation, Morgentaler opened a Toronto clinic in 1982, which again was raided. Again he was put on trial and again a jury refused to find him guilty.
He took his case to the Supreme Court and in 1988 it found that “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person.”
The defeat of Canada’s abortion law was an incredible victory for struggle, and the anti-choice movement tried to build a backlash. The Federal Tories drafted a law recriminalizing abortion (and a Toronto woman died from a self-induced abortion when she thought the law had passed), Toronto’s Morgentaler clinic was bombed and a number of abortion providers were shot, and Nova Scotia and New Brunswick refused to pay for clinic abortions.
Morgentaler continued the struggle. He lived to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1988 victory, and he will live on in the struggle. The fight against the abortion law was a tremendous victory that can be applied to the ongoing fight for reproductive justice.
Capitalism remains obsessed with controlling women’s reproductive rights, in order to impose a heteronormative nuclear family to raise the next generation of workers, and in order to perpetuate oppression against indigenous and other racialized groups, and people with disabilities. The criminalization of abortion in the 1800s was part of a broader agenda that included criminalizing homosexuality, and sterilization of indigenous women and women with disabilities.
The mass movement that emerged to support Henry Morgentaler took a broad reproductive justice perspective to fight the abortion law. The slogan “Free abortion on demand” made clear the centrality of women’s control over their own bodies, irrespective of socioeconomic status. This was part of a broader understanding of choice, including the freedom to have children and childcare, the freedom of sexuality, the freedom from forced sterilization, and equal pay and job opportunities.
In order to build a mass movement, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics built roots in the labour movement, seeing access to abortion as a class issue, and connected to broader struggles of reproductive justice.
Morgentaler and his lawyers were crucial, but so too were the thousands of women and men who provided clinic defense--challenging the anti-choice who tried to block the Morgentaler clinic.
After the abortion law was struck down the anti-choice movement went on the offensive, with “Operation rescue” that swarmed the clinic with anti-choice bigots, while the police stood by. Meanwhile the federal Tories drafted a law recriminalizing abortion, which passed the House of Commons and went to the Senate.
Thousands joined arms to chant “racist, sexist, anti-gay: right-wing bigots go away” and defended the clinic, sending a clear signal to the government that the new law could not be enforced on the ground; the law died in the Senate.
The legacy of mass mobilizing is essential to beat back to Tory attacks, which include a barrage of anti-choice motions and bills, and defunding abortion abroad and at home.
The struggle continues
The Tories have a majority in Parliament and want to roll back abortion rights. But thanks to the reproductive justice movement a majority of people outside Parliament support a woman’s right to chose. As a result, the Tories are trying to chip away at choice through motions against “sex-selection”, redefining human life, or using the austerity agenda to defund abortion.
But the pro-choice majority can fight back. Motion 312 was supported by many cabinet ministers, including Status of Women minister Rona Ambrose, who used it as a launching pad for Motion 408. But there was a push back, including national day of action for reproductive justice. Ambrose retreated and refused to support Motion 408.
The fight against the abortion law shows how we can challenge the state and change ideas through struggle. Ultimately this means a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and the sexism, racism, disability oppression, homophobia and transphobia on which it depends. The struggle for women’s liberation is at the heart of the fight for a better world.
If you like this article, come to Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a conference this weekend of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Socialism, feminism and the fight for reproductiive justice", "The fight for trans liberation", and "Women, resistance and revolution."