Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Controversial doctor faced a lifetime of persecution

Sandra Martin has written an article giving the biography of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Canada's champion of abortion rights for women: "Controversial abortion doctor faced a lifetime of persecution".

Dr. Morgentaler went ahead with his plans to open a Toronto clinic on Harbord Street in June 15, 1983. It was raided in July by police who seized some equipment and charged Dr. Morgentaler and two colleagues, Dr. Robert Scott and Dr. Leslie Smoling, with procuring illegal miscarriages. On Nov. 8, 1984, an Ontario jury, following its Quebec predecessors, acquitted him and his two associates.

Lawyer Alan Cooper, then a Crown counsel, said later that he never expected to win the case. “I knew 90 per cent of Canada was against me,” he told The Globe. “Dr. Morgentaler was like a national hero. Even devout Catholics were coming up to me during the trial and saying: ‘How can you prosecute him?' Even my parents said that to me once.”

Dr. Morgentaler was jubilant, but his victory was short-lived. Attorney-general Roy McMurtry announced that the verdict would be appealed, but that no new prosecutions would be initiated. However, a second charge was laid on Dec. 20, 10 days after the clinic reopened. Dr. Morgentaler described it as “legal anarchy” and, on Jan. 7, was back in business, personally performing abortions at his Toronto clinic, while anti-abortionists picketed outside.

The jury verdict was subsequently reversed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in October, 1985. The case was referred to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 1988 that the abortion law under which Dr. Morgentaler had been convicted contravened Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Forcing women to endure potentially life-threatening delays violated their charter guarantee of life, liberty and security of the person.

The ruling put an end to the old system under which legal abortions could only be performed in the health system after a patient had successfully petitioned a hospital-based committee of three doctors. The Supreme Court found that this cumbersome process was arbitrary, demeaning and potentially injurious to women.

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