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Morgentaler and Abortion in Canada


Yesterday, Canadians across the country were either mourning the loss of a highly influential man or praying for his soul.  That’s the kind of divisiveness Dr. Henry Morgentaler had on Canadians.  He was either revered or reviled for his contributions to Canadian society.  In case you’re wondering what the big deal is, Morgentaler is widely considered the man who initiated changes to Canada’s abortion laws.  He began his crusade in the sixties by opening up Canada’s first abortion clinic.  He also lobbied government to strike down the then existing laws that prohibited women from having control over their reproduction.  For decades, Morgentaler fought the system, during which time he was incarcerated, harassed, threatened, and attacked.

Canada’s history on abortion law is long and contentious.  The law was first enacted in 1892 when parliament passed legislation that prohibited “abortion as well as the sale, distribution, and advertising of contraceptives.” It was almost a century later, in 1988, that the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s abortion laws.   To date, there have been several failed attempts to legislate abortion in Canada.  Politicians typically keep a distance from such polarizing topics, meaning Canada has seen little in the way of debate in the House of Commons.  In fact, Canada is one of just a few countries around the world that does not have abortion laws.  This means that if you can find a doctor willing to perform the procedure, a woman can legally have an abortion in Canada at any stage of her pregnancy.

Indeed, proof of just how contentious this issue is can be gauged by the silence from various members of government on the passing of Morgentaler.  Given that Morgentaler is credited by vast numbers of women for advancing their rights, one would think that the Minister for the Status of Women might have released some official statement – yet, nary a peep from the Hill.  While no official statements were released, comments from politicians were quickly captured via Twitter.  Not surprisingly, very few Conservative politicians had much to say or anything positive to say about the man.  This is the same political party that appears heavily aligned with the evangelical Christian movement in Canada.

U of T Students for Life rally 2009

 Evangelical Christian groups are the biggest supporters of the pro-life movement.  There are several pro-life organizations operating in Canada, all of which appear to be aligned with various fundamental Christian groups.  When news of Morgentaler’s death broke, representatives from pro-life associations indicated that they had been and will continue to pray for his soul.  In contrast, the national group for pro-choice supporters released a statement praising Morgentaler for his “courage and compassion.”  Yes, in death, as in life, Morgentaler continues to divide Canadians.

Pro-choice counter-protest to the National March for Life in Ottawa, Ontario, in 2010

Yet, it isn’t the man himself that is polarizing as much as it is the symbol of a movement that he represents.  The debate often involves matters of religion and science intersecting ethics.  Indeed, many of the arguments put forth by pro-life advocates are laced in religious tones and scriptural connotations.  Public policies that are overtly influenced by theological considerations are not the norm in Canada.  Mixing religion and politics is frowned upon by the vast majority of Canadians – despite the fact that Canada does not have any legislation that officially separates church and state (like our neighbours to the South do).   Therefore, efforts to change the status quo through the voice of scripture just aren’t going to fly in the Great White North – at least not any time soon.  This is particularly true for a country whose demographics are shifting away from religious institutions toward a more secular spirituality.  Movements lose relevancy when changes to public policy are sought based on religious concerns (what the Bible, or other holy scriptures, say about abortion is another blog topic for another day).  The point is that debates concerning public policy cannot be framed within a particular theological worldview – especially in a country as religiously diverse as Canada.  Doing so, means your cause will no longer be about human rights – but rather a particular brand of divine ordinance that may not even be relevant to a large section of the population.  Religious groups have given us many fine social institutions in Canada (schools, hospitals, etc.), but that was during a time when religion dictated almost every aspect of life.  This isn’t the case in today’s Canada.  It likely won’t be the case in the very near future.

So, if we’re going to have a debate about rights, responsibilities, and life – let’s avoid the usual religious rabble-rousing.  This doesn’t mean that I think we should open the debate about abortion.  If you read between the lines of my post, it’s pretty easy to see where I stand on the issue.  That said, part of me is disconcerted that Canada theoretically allows fetuses to be aborted up to the moment before birth (if you can find a doctor willing to do it).  Even the staunchest pro-choice advocate must flinch – at least for a moment – at that thought.  But, where do we draw the line?  That my faithful flock, is another question to be answered another day.

M. xo

P.S.  An interesting – and perhaps highly sensational – book on the subject of the evangelical movement in Canada’s political system is Marci McDonald’s The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada.  Check it out, and then let me know what you think!


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