Canada’s famous abortion doctor, who died last week, was a masterful subject for journalists, his biographer recalls. Catherine Dunphy argues although he was womanizer who loved many, the most important love affair in his life was between him and media. 

By Catherine Dunphy

In death, as in life, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was all over the news. He died Wednesday at home at 90, quietly I’m told.

That night, talking heads on The National, City TV and all the networks in between were weighing in on the extraordinary life and times of the doctor who ‘d battled all the way to the Supreme Court to decriminalize abortion.

The next day the Toronto Star published a laudatory obit and editorial while The Globe and Mail gave him a third of the front, a centre spread, full-page obit, a fulsome editorial.

Morgentaler also made The New York Times. Now, that he would have loved.


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As his biographer, I spent two years trying to decipher the man. He was a very complicated guy –a feminist hero who was never faithful to any of the women in his life, a selfish man who risked prison and death for a cause no one else would take on, a brave man who was afraid of fear, an arrogant man who was a grass-roots crusader.  Basically, he wanted to be noticed, not understood. That’s why the most important love affair in his life was between him and media.

He gave thousands of interviews, each one masterful.

As I said in my book (I called it Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero with cause, believe me) he presented to reporters a potent blend of statesman and everyman. Perhaps it was the times (the ‘70s, ’80s, even the ‘90s) but no one challenged him when he declared manfully – and regularly – he was speaking on behalf  of  “the women of Canada”  as if we all had masking tape over our mouths.

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There must be hundreds of photos of him giving the V for victory sign – on courthouse steps,  in front of one of his clinics, heck, wherever there was a mic or the flash of a camera. The head of one of the pro-choice women’s groups fighting alongside Morgentaler once told me she thought she might lose her mind if he made that sign one more time. He did. (And she didn’t.) And another shot of Morgentaler making the V made it to the front page, as he knew it would.

He was the most unlikely media star. Short, hirsute, he spoke with a Polish accent. No one would ever have called him good looking. But as the little guy risking everything he had to go up against the Man – never mind about what — he connected with plenty of Canadians.

The issue he kept pushing onto the front pages was painful but maybe not as divisive as everybody believed. Of course, those opposing abortion were vociferous and loathed him but then again a series of Gallup polls at the time reported more than 70 per cent of Canadians felt abortion should be a matter between a  woman and her doctor. Morgentaler never had a moment’s doubt he was right and that he would win. And because he had the ear of media, he knew he’d get the last word.

And that’s exactly what happened this week.

Even in media that had vilified him and his cause. In the Toronto Sun, columnist Michael Coren wrote of Morgentaler’s “grimly evil legacy” remarking that he enjoyed a life of “wealth, comfort and prestige” from the profits made from killing babies. The headline? “ Morgentaler no hero”.

But the news obit in the same paper ran with one of Morgentaler’s favourite photos. He is standing in front of the framed poster of Albert Einstein that held pride of place in his office at his Bayview Ave. clinic.  

Under the photo, clearly visible, is the quote from Einstein that Morgentaler lived by.

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Catherine Dunphy, an instructor at Ryerson's School of Journalism, was a feature writer for the Toronto Star when she wrote Morgentaler, A Difficult Hero. The book was nominated for a Governor-General's award in 1997.