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74th Annual Summer Conference, August 4–7, 2005

Annual Couchiching Award for Excellence in Public Policy Leadership

Dr. Henry Morgentaler

I wish to thank the Couchiching Institute for selecting me for this award. I greatly appreciate this honour.

It has been said that it’s impossible to stop the success of an idea whose time has come; but good ideas come and go and often are not put into practice because of opposition and the forces that defend the status quo and are hostile to change.

For a new idea to triumph you need a historical context within which you must have people who are ready to promote it, defend it, and who are willing to make sacrifices for it, if necessary.

The idea that women have a right to control their reproductive function and that they should be able to have abortions on request is one of those ideas whose time has come.

Even now, in 2005, in Canada where the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 17 years ago that women should be entitled to this right in the Morgentaler Decision of 1988, the struggle is still going on in some provinces, such as New Brunswick and Quebec.

The struggle of women for emancipation and equal rights as well as for rights specific to women such as control over reproduction and the freedom to make those decisions, has come up against thousands of years of patriarchy, embodied and represented by religion.

Most of the great religions were created thousands or hundreds of years ago, in patriarchal societies, and to this day, with few exceptions, they are the bastions of patriarchy and opponents of women’s rights.

If you look at the Catholic Church for example you see a 2 thousand year-old institution which does not allow women to feel equal to men by denying them access to the priesthood and is adamantly opposed to a woman’s right to abortion.

The Catholic Church is not the only male-dominated religion opposed to women’s rights; the Muslim religion is equally opposed. It is therefore no wonder that in most countries dominated by these 2 religions women are oppressed and denied fundamental human rights of which the right to abortion is only the most visible example.

Fortunately, in some countries in Europe such as Italy, abortion has become legal in spite of the opposition of the Vatican. It is also legal in the most populous countries in the world like China, India and Russia, as well as most European countries.

In Canada, what are the consequences of the Supreme Court of Canada Morgentaler decision in 1988?

While a few provincial governments still oppose clinic abortions, in violation of the Canada Health Act, most Canadian women, now have access to safe medical abortions.

Women no longer die because of illegal or self- induced abortions. Abortions done by doctors have become the safest surgical procedure, with a very low complication rate.

The mortality rate of women in childbirth and of babies dying at birth has decreased considerably and is now one of the lowest in the world.

Fewer unwanted children are being born, consequently fewer babies are being abused, neglected, or brutalized, with a result that fewer young men grow up with a rage in their heart which leads to violence. The murder rate in our society has gone down significantly because of that. In Toronto it is now the lowest it has been in 30 years.

I would also postulate that another result of that would be a decrease of emotional and mental illness compared to previous times due to the same factors, more children being given love, affection and good care.

Personally, I have become involved in the struggle for reproductive rights because of my Humanist convictions and because, as a doctor I was eager to offer help to women seeking a termination of pregnancy.

I could not accept that the state would not allow me to offer medical help to women asking for it.

My civil disobedience to an unjust cruel law which exposed women to dangers of death and mutilation, has resulted in the abolition of that law which opened the way to provide services to women who needed them.

In a logical conclusion of my victory, to promote needed services, I opened 8 clinics in the country where women would be treated with competence and compassion, with the safest and most modern methods, such as the vacuum suction technique which I pioneered in North America and which I taught to about 100 doctors over the years.

I am glad that over the last 37 years I have been able to make my contribution to women’s security and safety in spite of vilification and threats.

I wish to pay tribute to those doctors in the United States and Canada who have been murdered and wounded by anti-choice fanatics. I also wish to thank my staff in the clinics I built in Canada who have continued to work to help women in an atmosphere of compassion and dignity, in spite of threats of violence.

I am glad that in Canada the right to safe legal abortion is much more solid than it is in the United States, where religious fundamentalists in power, are engaged in trying to overthrow Roe vs. Wade and usher in a new era of darkness and danger for women.

I believe that in a democratic society people should have the right to personal life styles of their own as long as other people’s rights are respected. I think that laws based on supposedly holy books like the Bible should be examined critically and removed if shown to be unjust and obsolete.

In a pluralist multi-religious country like Canada, laws should be based on knowledge and reason and the maximum individual freedom compatible with the common good.

Recently I have had the privilege to attend the annual conference of the Humanist Association of Canada and to introduce Evelyn Martens as the recipient of the Annual award as Humanist of the year. Evelyn Martens had helped a person afflicted with terminal cancer to commit suicide and was then tried and acquitted by a jury of her peers.

I hope this issue will be resolved by Parliament in the near future and that we will eventually legalize the right to die with dignity, following the examples of legislation enacted by Holland and the state of Oregon.

Another issue of importance is the religious affiliation of hospitals. Government now funds all public hospitals in Canada under Medicare. There is no more reason why hospitals should be denominational and impose religious restrictions, which limit access to medical care such as contraception and abortion. It is high time that all hospitals become secular institutions that practice good medicine without having to submit to particular religious restrictions.

The Humanist Association of Canada has adopted a resolution to that effect 2 years ago. I intend to pursue this issue to the best of my abilities.

I have always considered medicine as a noble and humanitarian profession. I chose it as a career not only in order to heal and protect people against illness but also, unconsciously as a means to undo the evil I experienced as a youth at the hands of people beholden to a fascist inhuman ideology.

Psychology tells us that children given love, affection and respect for their individuality in their formative years will be able to grow up into persons able to love and to relate to themselves and others in a positive friendly way.

My life’s dedication to the cause has been not only to protect women but also to make sure that children will be born to mothers who want them and are ready to provide love affection and good nurturing.

I hope that my efforts over the years have helped to bring about a more humane society.