Say what you will about Dr. Henry Morgentaler -- and there are few things, good, bad and despicably ugly, that have not been said about him -- but he has forever changed the face of health care in Canada.
His crusade to legalize abortion and to make safe medical abortions available across the country has greatly benefited the health of Canadian women. It has made the delivery of health care (and by extension, our society) more just.
In 1967, Dr. Morgentaler appeared before a House of Commons committee and delivered a tongue-lashing to politicians, along with an unvarnished account of the horrors of backstreet abortions using knitting needles and Drano injections. The next year, he performed his first abortion, then in 1969, openly defied the law by opening a private abortion clinic. In 1970, the pro-choice doctor was arrested, and acquitted. The acquittal was later overturned and he served 18 months in prison. The legal battles multiplied, until the issue made its way to the highest court.
Two decades ago, Dr. Morgentaler's lawyer, Morris Manning, told the Supreme Court that denying women timely access to abortion violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- specifically Section 7 of the Charter, which guarantees "life, liberty, and security of the person." The Court agreed and, on Jan. 28, 1988, abortion was decriminalized.
Since then, the number of abortions performed annually has remained pretty steady: In 2002, there were 105,154 abortions in clinics and hospitals, according to Statistics Canada. More than half the women seeking the procedure were in their 20s.
Sadly, these young women seem to have little idea who Dr. Morgentaler is, or the struggles he endured (and survived, with the backing of the feminist movement) to ensure their access to care. A poll commissioned by CTV earlier this year, as part of its promotion of the movie Choice: The Henry Morgentaler Story, showed that three-quarters of women 18 to 34 could not identify Dr. Morgentaler.
One place his name is readily identifiable, however, is among the judiciary. Since 1998, more than 300 court rulings have made reference to the Morgentaler decision. Just last week, when the Supreme Court struck down Quebec's ban on private insurance -- the Chaoulli case -- it referred specifically to the landmark Morgentaler decision.
Madam Justice Marie Deschamps, writing for the majority, said: "In Morgentaler, as here, people in urgent need of care face the same prospect: Unless they fall within the wealthy few who can pay for private care, typically outside the country, they have no choice but to accept the delays imposed by the legislative scheme and the adverse physical and psychological consequences this entails."
One of the ironies of the Morgentaler decision was that, by ensuring timely access to a basic service, the court paved the way for a system of private abortion clinics.
The reality is that the private clinics should never have been required. The private clinics, operated by Dr. Morgentaler and others, became necessary only because governments failed to carry out their constitutional responsibilities.
Clearly, if a pregnancy is going to be terminated, the procedure should be performed quickly -- within a matter of weeks. Whether this is true of other surgical procedures, from hip replacements to cataract removal, is less clear.
As Madam Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said in the Chaoulli ruling: "Not every difficulty rises to the level of adverse impact on security under Section 7. The impact, whether psychological or physical, must be serious."
The Charter, the Chief Justice added, "does not confer a freestanding constitutional right to health care," but when government puts in place a program to provide health care, that program "must comply with the Charter."
That kind of language does not open the floodgates to private, for-profit health care -- unless, of course, politicians interpret it as such.
In the case of abortion, many provinces continue to flout the letter and the spirit of the law.
While abortion is safe, legal and publicly funded in Canada, there are still far too many practical hurdles for a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy.
Nationwide, only about one in five hospitals performs abortions -- at least on paper. But even those that do offer the service impose arbitrary gestation limits and have lengthy wait lists. New Brunswick, in flagrant contravention of the law, requires the approval of two doctors. Women in PEI must travel out of province. New Brunswick, Quebec and Manitoba still refuse to pay for abortions in private clinics.
And women who wish to have an abortion, and the doctors who perform abortions, still must endure harassment and abuse from the "pro-life" zealots who stake out clinics.
The anti-choice forces will be out in force today in London, Ont., along with a group of pro-choice counter-demonstrators, when Dr. Morgentaler is awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Western Ontario.
That the 82-year-old doctor still elicits such strong emotion is proof that the battle for safe, legalized abortion is not yet won.