by Tennile Sunday
I was packing up at the end of a workday, a while back, and a coworker, we’ll call him “Tim,” invited me to join him and some friends for dinner. I told him I couldn’t, because I’d already made a commitment: I was going to a pro-choice rally outside an abortion clinic in Toronto.
“But we’ve already won the right to choose!” Tim smirked. Then, clearly not the kind of guy who quits when he’s ahead, he continued: “I mean, isn’t it kind of pointless to go to a rally for something that’s not even an issue anymore?”
Not an issue anymore. We’ve already won the right to choose. I chased his words around my head. I couldn’t absorb the idea that my colleague, someone who considered himself a feminist, could be so off base on this. I couldn’t seem to find the words, and courage to tell him how wrong he was. “It’s still an issue,” I told him, tersely.
Another colleague, “Dan,” overheard our conversation and chimed in with a quip he’d obviously cracked before, “As a former fetus, I have to say, I’m pretty pro-life.” He chuckled at his own “wit,” and I was baffled. Why oh why would I ever assume that publishing professionals were all forward-thinking individuals? I snapped back at him, “Well, as a current and lifelong woman, I have to say that I’m pretty pro-choice!” I rolled my bristol board sign up, and got on the subway, ashamed that I could express myself while safely encircled by like-minded rally-goers, but I couldn’t find the voice to adequately defend my standpoint, face to face, to people I knew and respected.
Now, in the wake of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death, I am reminded of that exchange, and I realize that we –- people like Tim and I — haven’t actually fought for, or won, anything; the people who worked for abortion rights are worlds braver, and more determined than we are. They knew that speaking out, and demanding change would be difficult and dangerous, but they did it anyway. They were people with true conviction, and endless obstacles to overcome.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler was one of these people. At the forefront of the reproductive rights movement in Canada, he was a fierce advocate for equality, a humanist, and someone who had no fear of the consequences of his necessary civil disobedience, or of the people who believed that his work should beget violence upon him. “If I have to die tonight, by an assassin’s bullet, well at least I’ve achieved something in my life,” he once said.
He was a Holocaust survivor, liberated from the concentration camp in Dachau; that day, April 29th, 1945, he was an emaciated young man who understood the value of freedom, dignity, and standing up for what’s right. By 1955, he was a physician with a family practice in Montreal, and in 1967, his quest for reproductive rights began. While other doctors were making the self-preserving decision to stop performing abortions, Dr. Morgentaler, recognizing the unfairness of abortion laws, never saw quitting as an option. He faced attacks and death threats, and his clinics were firebombed.
He was arrested, charged, and acquitted several times for his work, performing safe, medically sound, but illegal abortions. In 1975, he found himself once again stripped of freedom as he selflessly served 10 months of an 18-month prison sentence. Finally, in 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada reached the Morgentaler Decision, determining that abortion laws violated woman’s rights, and were therefore unconstitutional. In 2008, he received the Order of Canada.
Today, the Canadian health care system is supposed to fund abortions, and provinces are responsible for supporting abortion clinics. This is likely why my colleague, Tim, had assumed that reproductive rights were no longer an issue in Canada, but he clearly didn’t realize that the story doesn’t end there. People still contend with abortion funding issues and limited access to facilities (specifically in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Northern and remote/rural areas).
On top of the practical issues of finances, and accessibility, people seeking abortions are also subject to harassment, emotional and physical violence, and being vilified by anti-choice protestors. Pro-choice activists have to deal with clever people, like my coworker—“former fetus” Dan—who believe that fetuses have human rights, and pregnant people do not. Sometimes, it’s as if people have the right to choose, but they don’t have the rights to privacy, support, or personal safety.
Dr. Morgentaler, and his fellow activists, have worked so hard, and carried us so far since the 60’s. Back in 2005, he said of his work, “By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential.”
What he has contributed and accomplished is incredible, but there is still more work to be done. Now it’s up to us to take up his legacy and make our contributions to a safer and more caring society. Although we aren’t the ones who fought for, and won, legal access to reproductive rights, we are the ones now charged with protecting them. I hope we can all find the words and the courage to continue his quest, and to honour him.
May he rest in peace.
On the Reproductive Justice movement: http://www.sistersong.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=141&Itemid=81
A talk from Carolyn Egan, on the 25th Anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision:
A timeline of Dr. Morgentaler’s life:
Tennile Sunday is a photographer, and writer. She is interested in lots of issues, including, but not limited to, mental health awareness and suicide prevention, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and environmental protection. She is from Toronto, but currently lives in Chicago.