Morgentaler’s Order of Canada ignites culture war

By Dennis Gruending

Henry MorgentalerA war of words has erupted around Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s appointment to the Order of Canada on July 1st. Some have hailed him as a hero to women while others brand him as a murderer for his role in developing freestanding abortion clinics. The Prime Minister has taken the unprecedented step of criticizing an Order of Canada appointment. “My preference, to be frank, would be to see the Order of Canada be something that really unifies, that brings Canadians together,” he told the media on July 2nd. Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops made much the same point in their statement saying the award creates “controversy and division”. The bishops are calling for the award to be rescinded and they level a harsh criticism of Morgentaler as someone who has “encouraged the development of a culture of death.” A Vancouver area priest who received the award in the 1980s says that he will return his medal.

Morgentaler was among those who lobbied for a change in Canada’s abortion law but he can hardly be credited, or blamed for, the liberalization that occurred in 1969. It was his establishing standalone clinics that saw him arrested and imprisoned. In 1988, however, the Supreme Court ruled that the new law was contrary to Section 7 of the Charter of rights and Freedoms which guarantees (for women in this case) the right to life, liberty and security. The Mulroney government then introduced new legislation that would have criminalized later term abortions. The legislation passed in the House of Commons in 1991 but failed to win approval in the Senate.

Words in the abortion debate are often brandished like weapons and there appears to be little place for common language or accommodation. Those who believe that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy describe their position as being pro-choice. They describe those who disagree with them as being anti-choice. Those who believe that a woman should have no such right describe themselves as pro-life and their opponents as pro-abortion or worse. The language wars do not end there.

Author and linguist George Lakoff says in his book Moral Politics that the words embryo and fetus are medical terms. An embryo is the product of conception, more than just a cluster of cells but not yet recognizable as a member of the species. A fetus is a further stage of development but there is no precise and specified moment at which a cluster of cells becomes an embryo and the embryo a fetus. Lakoff says that the choice of these words “call up a medical context in which the issues are medical issues.” Opponents of abortion use the word baby or unborn child. The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), for example, criticized the Morgentaler appointment in a July 2 news release. COLF said, “It is neither heroic nor admirable to cause the death of unborn children, the most vulnerable of all Canadians.” COLF is a joint project of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization. Lakoff writes, “The very choice of the word baby imposes the idea of an independently existing human being.”

The Catholic hierarchy confers personhood upon the earliest stages of the embryo that results from the fertilization of sperm and egg, and the bishops extend this position even farther to say that it is sinful to use any “artificial” form of birth control to prevent that fertilization from occurring. The hierarchy also believes that the practice of birth control leads to the slippery slope of what the bishops call an abortion mentality. This is not the place to debate the hierarchy’s position on birth control other than to say that few people in our society, including Catholics, take it seriously.

In Vancouver, Father Lucien Larre says that he’ll return his Order of Canada medal rather than be associated with Morgentaler. Father Larre is no stranger to controversy and division himself. He once lived in Saskatchewan where he founded Bosco Homes for treating emotionally disturbed and addicted adolescents. In 1992, some years after he was awarded the Order of Canada, a Saskatchewan jury convicted him on two counts of physically abusing children in his care and acquitted him on nine other charges. He was sentenced to one day in jail and paid a $2,500 fine for one charge of common assault. The National Parole Board of Canada pardoned him five years later and erased the charges.

Henry Morgentaler is 85 years old and is apparently in poor health but he remains a galvanizing symbol. Some groups and MPs have also used his appointment to criticize Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who acts as head of the Order of Canada advisory council. Alberta Conservative MP Ken Epp was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying, “Is she now totally out of impartiality because of the fact she has weighed into this?” Criticism of judges was common in the old Reform party and lives on among Conservatives. Since Canada enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1980s, some of the highest profile cases have involved women, sexual minorities and aboriginal people. The political and religious right is antagonistic toward the charter and suspicious about what it considers to be liberal-activist judges.

Mr. Harper’s comments regarding the Morgentaler appointment can be seen as political. He had earlier promised that his government would not attempt new legislation regarding abortion, although there are three Private Members Bills at various stages that do deal with aspects of it. Harper’s position will have disappointed many in his political universe but by questioning the Morgentaler award he sends a sympathetic signal to social conservatives without having to do anything about it. They may well demand more of him.

One thought on “Morgentaler’s Order of Canada ignites culture war

  1. Good article. I would have hoped that by now abortion rights would be understood and less controversial. I listened to Dr. Ellen Wiebe, a long-time provider of safe abortions in Vancouver, being interviewed on CBC yesterday and she mentioned that many women in the pro-life camp come to her for abortions when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Pro-lifers are as connected to women who seek abortions as anyone else. However, the hypocrisy of the pro-lifers is well, something else!


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