Henry Morgentaler on “The Moral Case for Abortion”
I happened to be reading today a 1996 article by Henry Morgentaler titled The Moral Case for Abortion. Mogentaler is a physician who survived Auschwitz, moved to Canada, opened Canada’s first abortion clinic in 1968 even though the law at the time was that abortions could only be performed to save the life of a pregnant woman, was arrested on multiple occasions for performing abortions, received multiple death threats, had his clinic firebombed, and has been a prominent abortion rights advocate for the entire time. In large part because of him, Canada changed its laws in 1969 to permit abortions if performed in a hospital after being approved by a government committee. In 1988, the 1969 law was ruled unconstitutional and Canada has not had any law prohibiting abortion since then.
The timing of my reading the article was interesting considering today’s horrible anti-abortion rights law passage in Nebraska. There were a few things about Morgentaler’s article that particularly struck me.
One was that not much seems to have changed since 1996. The battles were the same then—and as brutal—as they are today. Abortion rights opponents think only of the “rights” of the “unborn child.” Abortion rights supporters think about the rights of the pregnant woman and the impact on society, not just about the “unborn child.”
Abortion rights opponents are always inflamed about abortion, but aren’t bothered much at all about miscarriages.
I learned a new word: “homunculus.” According to many people in the 16th and 17th centuries, a homunculus was, at the time of conception, a fully formed person that lived in the womb and had only to develop to a certain size to be expelled from the womb. In other words, people believed then that a person was fully formed at the time of conception and only had to grow before being “born.” According to the article, the Catholic church believed that was the way things were. With that as a basis, and with the refusal of the Catholic church to shed its old ways, is it any wonder that the church still has such reactionary thinking.
Personally, I usually have considered the issue of abortion to be one on which I support abortion rights, but also can (kind of) see how people could disagree with me. I contrast that to many issues on which I can see no legitimate reason for people to disagree with me. (For example, I can see no reason that a right-thinking person can be against gun control.) But reading Morgentaler’s article made me think that I should not be so considerate of people who are against abortion rights. He says (again, this was in 1996):
There are others in the pro-choice community who attempt to justify themselves and their actions with an attitude that says, “Yes, we need abortions to help some women, but we deplore the fact that we have to do them, our hearts are not really in it, and it would be nice if we did not have to do it.”
What is going on here? Have all these people forgotten that women used to die in our countries from self-induced or quack abortions, that unwanted children were given away to institutions where they suffered enormous trauma that took the joy of life away from them and made them into anxious, depressed individuals with a grudge against society? Have all these people forgotten that an unwanted pregnancy was the biggest health hazard to young fertile women and could result in loss of fertility, long-term illness, injury, and death?
And Morgentaler shows that things have really not changed when he gives his views on why the abortion rights opponents have so much hate:
Historically, and even up to this day, men hold the authority in all the major religions of the world. In most countries men are also heads of state and lawmakers. In science and medicine, men traditionally hold the reigns of authority an power, only recently allowing women entry into these fields. Is it any wonder then, that laws and attitudes regarding abortion took so long to change? But now these attitudes are changing, and women around the world are gradually acquiring more power and more control of their reproductive capacities. Unfortunately, organized religions, propelled by traditional dogma and fundamentalist rhetoric, are fueling the fires of the anti-choice movement with lying, inflammatory propaganda and violent rhetoric leading to riots and murder. The anti-choice supporters realize they have lost the battle, that public opinion has not been swayed by their diatribes and dogmatic opposition. Consequently, they are angry and increasingly engaging in terrorist tactics. Their recourse to violence, both in the Unites States and Canada, resulting in the murder and wounding of doctors performing abortions and the increasing violence directed at abortion providers, is a sign of moral bankruptcy, but unfortunately it places the lives of all physicians and medical staff who provide abortions in danger.