Humanist Perspectives: issue 186: Henry Morgentaler: The Man, the Hero, and His Legacy

Henry Morgentaler: The Man, the Hero, and His Legacy
by Simon Parcher


enry Morgentaler was often a prodigious news maker and the end of his life was no exception. When he passed away on May 29, 2013, the news media provided extensive coverage of his life and times. Most of the stories focused on the facts that he was a physician and an advocate of women’s rights and abortion rights. The reports summarized his trials and victories and that he was a hero to many but was also a polarizing figure. These latter reports missed the point that it was not Henry himself who was polarizing, but rather the controversial issue of abortion rights. What virtually every report omitted was that Henry Morgentaler was a humanist.

Henry was a man whom most humanists, atheists and liberal-minded people greatly admired. This is because he was a true humanist. He was a crusader, not only for reproductive rights, but also for women, freedom and human dignity. This was Henry Morgentaler, the man.

Shortly after his passing, a private funeral was held for Henry. A very inspirational eulogy was delivered by his friend and colleague in humanism, Christopher diCarlo. A public ceremony was held several weeks later for his wider circle of friends, colleagues and admirers to attend on July 19, 2013, at Hart House in the University of Toronto. This was their opportunity to celebrate Henry’s life and pay tribute to him. The weatherman even chipped in to help mark this very special occasion!

It was a hot and steamy day in Toronto. There had been driving rain, thunderstorms and tornado warnings throughout the early evening. However, this did not discourage the people from filling the prestigious Great Hall of Hart House. Most of the hundreds in attendance were dressed casually, but some, like me, showed up with a jacket and tie. The jacket was soon doffed in favour of being more comfortable.

The Great Hall was indeed grand. The lower ten feet of the walls were covered in rich wood paneling and above, tall stained glass windows arched towards the high ceiling. The sturdy wooden chairs featured seat cushions upholstered in red leather. Sixteen elegant candelabra chandeliers hung throughout the room and portraits of distinguished-looking individuals decorated the walls on all sides. It was a setting befitting legends and heroes and the perfect place in which to celebrate the life of Henry Morgentaler.

The memorial would fulfil a deep-seated need to eulogize the man who had been such a fixture on the Canadian scene for so many years and who fought so hard for what he believed in. Many of Henry’s well-known friends such as MPP Olivia Chow and CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi were in attendance and shared their thoughts with the audience.

The first speaker was Canadian journalist and feminist Michelle Landsberg. She said Henry was often referred to as controversial but she loved him. She loved his intelligence, humour, compassion and unswerving secularism. She was sure that his commitment would serve as a beacon and a shining light for all of us.

Next up was feminist, author, columnist and TV show host Judy Rebick. She told us that Dr. Morgentaler was a figure of love and admiration for most Canadians and that he was one of our few true Canadian heroes. When Judy once wondered how he could live with the constant threat of violence, Henry told her, “We can’t give up out of fear. We have to keep doing what we believe in.”

When Judy [Rebick]once wondered how he could live with the constant threat of violence, Henry told her, “We can’t give up out of fear. We have to keep doing what we believe in.”

In fact, Judy once blocked a physical attack on Henry by a man wielding garden shears outside his abortion clinic in Toronto. Augusto Dantas was later charged with assault and with possession of a weapon dangerous to the public good. Judy said Henry had been attacked in many ways by anti-Semites and anti-choice advocates.

Judy related that Henry had always shown her tremendous love, as he had to his patients. He felt that when a people or a group struggles for, and finally gets, some privilege in society, they should use that privilege to fight for those who don’t have any.

Olivia Chow was next to take the stage. She opened by saying that Henry knew the importance of every life and recounted how he weighed 70 pounds when he was freed from the Nazi concentration camps. Olivia entertained the audience with a story about how there was a phone tree that organized counter protests to those who protested outside the Toronto abortion clinic. She and her husband Jack Layton would often join these counter protests and sometimes they would bring along Olivia’s mother. Even though her mother stood only 5' 2", she would not hesitate to unleash a fiery verbal attack on the protestors, all in Chinese!

Olivia closed with, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Look at what Henry did!”

At this point, Henry’s favourite musical group, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer band, took the stage. The lead singer said that Henry was steeped in his Jewish and Yiddish culture and that this song, “Angel and Spider Comes,” was for him.

With a tornado warning still in effect, lightning flashed through the stained glass windows. It was as if the weatherman had arranged for a 21-bolt electrical salute to help celebrate the life of a great man in this grand venue. In the humidity, I could feel a trickle of sweat running down my side but that was quickly lost to the awesome occasion unfolding before me.

The next speaker was Selma Edelstone, Henry’s friend and member of the Humanist Association of Canada since 1968. She said Henry strongly embraced human reason and social justice. He often spoke to her about the value of personal responsibility and usually led the philosophical conversation at dinner. Selma reminded us that Henry put everything on the line to fight cruel and unjust laws and risked everything for change.

It was now time for the audience to hear from family as Henry’s eldest son, Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, made his way to the stage. Abraham started off with the story of how the youngest son, Benny, referred to his father as the little Jewish Batman who went around stomping out evil. The audience chuckled, evidently appreciating the visual.

Abraham recounted what it was like to be Henry’s son. At the age of 14, Henry sat him down and told him about providing abortion services and the legal challenges he faced. At that point in time their phones were tapped by the authorities. Abraham was sometimes freaked-out by all the threats and guns and violence, but at the same time, the family life was great. Theirs was a family full of fun, games, silliness, jokes, and songs. Ping pong was a big part of family life and they often spent hours around the basement ping pong table. Henry also loved music and he loved to dance.

Abraham took a moment to note that his father came to Canada with $20 in his pocket and a medical book in hand and went on to receive the Order of Canada.

Henry once told Abraham that it is possible to be the only person on this earth to believe something, and to be right. Abraham closed by saying that what he got out of being Henry’s son was the knowledge that one person can change the world.

Jian Ghomeshi of CBC Radio then regaled the audience with his rich, resonant voice. Jian was 18 or 19 years old when he first became aware of Henry, and he seemed like a titan to him. He supported Henry’s work and said it had never made sense to him that a group of mainly men could have control over a woman’s reproductive system. He often joined Olivia and Jack when they went to block the protestors at the abortion clinic.

Jian noted that Henry was not a huge man in stature and was soft-spoken, but this was his strength as he progressed from immigrant to political leader.

The last speaker was Ayesha Admani from the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre. She announced that the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics and the Humanist Association of Canada had established a scholarship in Dr. Morgentaler’s memory. This scholarship will assist medical students who are training to perform abortions. She appealed for donors and said cheques should be made payable to Humanist Canada and mailed to 45 O’Connor Street, Suite 1150, Ottawa, Ontario K1P 1A4. Donations can also be made on the Humanist Canada website at

The following italicized text is taken from the funeral eulogy delivered by Dr. Christopher diCarlo.

Henry was a man of fairness. This concept, the idea of ‘fairness,’ is an elusive one when it comes to definition and action because people are generally in favour of it until it requires an act of sacrifice on their part.

In trying to be fair for most of my adult and academic life, I have found that fairness is among the most respected values in theory, but is often among the least practised and accepted. When you genuinely try to be fair, as Henry did, by providing options and the safest and most caring treatment based on those options, choices, and decisions, not everyone will agree to such fairness.

I admire Henry’s follow through from his humanist position in life. Henry did not simply talk the talk when it came to secular values, fairness, equity, etc. Henry walked the walk. In being a good humanist, Henry felt a sense of duty to his fellow humans. And his duty was in treating all people in need of medical attention with the same compassion and care. Unlike others who claimed to be motivated by more divine inspiration, Henry’s inspiration came from a deep philosophical understanding of the qualities and characteristics that make us all human and hence, all equal and deserving of the same treatment, dignity, and respect. In this regard, his sense of fairness emerged and was practised in equitable fashion.

Henry, like all humanists, worked from a bottom-up approach which began with humans as opposed to a top-down approach believing in some concept of a deity which somehow provides us all with the proper rules for behaving. As humanists, we try to determine the best and most responsible way to live based on what we, ourselves, define as values. We cannot always live up to our ideals. But we make every concerted effort to do so. And for those who fall short, we feel compassion and understanding, and provide whatever assistance may be needed to ease them through difficult times.

Henry Morgentaler was a great humanist, a wonderful colleague, and an inspirational friend. His legacy for freethought and action shall live on in my life, the lives of our children, and for generations to come.

It was wonderful to hear about Henry, the man, from the family and friends who knew him best. They did a great job of putting his life in perspective and highlighting his struggles, achievements and his legacy. Whether Henry Morgentaler was a titan or a little Jewish Batman, he was undoubtedly a humanist hero, one who changed the course of history.

Simon Parcher is president of Canadian Humanist Publications and Humanist Canada, and is a Humanist Officiant.