The Métropolitain

Morgentaler: It’s about liberty, not libertines

By Beryl Wajsman on July 10, 2008

French social critic Hervé Juvin's book “L'avènement du corps” (The Elevation of the Body), argues that our ability to live longer has seen the birth of the hedonism of self-preservation replacing the hedonism of self-indulgence.

Some commentators have used Juvin’s work to argue that individual rights advocates are on "the wrong side of history" because people today are prepared to do anything and submit to anything for the sake of longevity. Their arguments imply that this trend is irreversible and that societal submission to state dictate on our behaviour is acceptable in order to accommodate a new wave of "sanctimonious puritanism" as one writer phrased it.

They miss the point. The debate is not about libertines. The debate is about liberty.

These thoughts come to mind as one observes the furor over the Order of Canada that will be bestowed on Dr. Henry Morgentaler. I will not touch on the moral issues of abortion. Nor will I touch on the status of the Order of Canada. What I will touch on is Henry Morgentaler’s singular contribution to this country—the championing of personal liberty.

The "right side" of history has always been, and will continue to be, that side that defends and expands individual freedoms. Among the most important of which is the freedom to choose. That freedom is one of the most telling barometers of any society's progress. Former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler argued that very point in his case for considering the de-criminalization of assisted suicide.

If the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, it certainly has no business telling any of us what to do with our bodies. And it particularly has no business imposing moral codes on its citizens—that’s simply not the state’s job.

The reason why so-called ‘blue laws’, whether against alcohol, smoking or abortion, so frequently raise their hydra-headed countenances is that too many people are afraid of liberty. That’s why the nanny-state continues to grow. As Bernard Shaw wrote, “liberty demands responsibility, that’s why so many dread it.” Too many of us are ready to be complicit in the refusal or denial of our own rights so that we can continue to go along just to get along. Too many are ready to sacrifice permanent liberty for temporary security—in the end getting neither. Too many are ready to buy into Elmer Gantry dogmas because they have lost the ability to reason for themselves and would happily impose this tyranny of the mindless on us all.

Laws have no legitimacy if they are used to curtail personal freedom—to protect us from ourselves. But they are important in protecting you from me. This is another great service Morgentaler rendered to this country. As much as people closed their eyes to it—and whether they were legal or not—abortions have always been a common practice. Sadly, however, many of these women had no access to doctors and back alley abortionists were doing permanent damage and killing many.

Morgentaler’s struggles not only re-affirmed the basic right of individual control over our own bodies, but protected so many women from trauma and death. This was a real public health issue.

Morgentaler was one of the few who walked the walk—he didn’t just talk the talk. He went to jail for violating a law the Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional. His actions were a main catalyst behind the current reality in which Canada is a country with no abortion law of any kind. And women are the better for it.

One of the common themes in the criticism of his appointment is that the awards should be given to people who unify the country, not who bring division. If that were true, you would have to question the giving of the award to a lot of recipients whose mere name sparks divisions in many parts of this country. Recipients that include a lot of politicians.

Based on the existing criteria,     and on historical precedent, Morgentaler's award is entirely defensible. Any attempts to have it rescinded are misguided (based on Order of Canada guidelines) or are simply attempts to re-open the abortion debate.

We as a nation must commit to one over-riding principle: that neither the state nor society has  a right to impose an external   collective morality on personal, self-centered conduct. We have  to become sophisticated enough     to accept that the full spectrum of human behaviour means that some people make bad choices, and that no amount of opprobrium or even danger to self will prevent people from doing that. We have to understand, as constitutional attorney Julius Grey put it, that “legislating niceness is not very nice.”

Before Morgentaler it was common for Canadian hospitals to have dedicated wards where women suffering sepsis or unstoppable hemorrhaging from botched abortions were treated and, sometimes, died. Even today the World Health Organization estimates that 68,000 women die annually from illegal abortions, while between two and seven million sustain long-term damage or disease.

Morgentaler’s battles resulted       in women being freed from submission to the will of the state or the clergy or simply the whim of a man for that matter. On a broader scale, he added building blocks to the edifice of individual liberty for all.

Many object to the fact that Morgentaler has profited, through his clinics, from his legal victories. What of it? We have to rid ourselves of childish notions born of false pieties. Virgins do not make redemptive change in society. The dubious can be champions of the good. And perhaps Morgentaler himself did not even think about all these notions of personal freedom when he began. Maybe he was just sick and tired of the sham and hypocrisy and suffering he saw. That alone should be good enough for us and for those who assess candidates to the Order of Canada. Too few of us with anything to lose truly talk truth to power.

No one has a right to force a woman to bear a child. Whether she carries the child to term or not is a traumatic and life-altering decision that only she can make—for herself. It may well be far more responsible to decide not to bring another human being into the world than to do so when the pregnancy is not planned and the circumstances are wrong. If a person feels that abortion is morally wrong base on personnal religious positions it doesn’t give them the right to impose that opinion on the women being affected. At the end of the day this is what Morgentaler taught us.

The Order of Canada's motto is “Desiderantes meliorem patriam”—they desire a better country.             By freeing so many women          from fear, and making Canadians accept personal liberty and responsibility, Morgentaler made Canada       a better place.