1973 Private Letter to Trudeau Suggests Abortion Crusader Morgentaler Used Blackmail



May 9, 2008

Exclusive Commentary to by Terry O’Neill

May 8, 2008 ( – Pro-lifers have long known that the Canadian political elite of the 1960s and 1970s was strongly in favour of abortion, at least in principle. After all, it was a Liberal government-supported by a liberal media-that first legalized the practice in 1969. But Canadians now know that those elites supported abortion, not just in principle, but in practice, as well. And our source for this information is none other than Canada’s arch-abortionist, Henry Morgentaler himself.

As revealed in this week’s Maclean’s, Henry Morgentaler wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1973 in which the abortionist disclosed that friends, family and lovers of many leading Canadian politicians were taking advantage of his then-illegal services. The letter is important, not only because it paints a fuller picture of the turbulent times, but also because it reveals important features of Morgentaler’s character – not an inconsequential consideration given the annual attempt to have him awarded with the Order in Canada.

On this latter topic, it seems to me that last February’s futile agitation for inclusion of Morgentaler into the Order of Canada represented yet another frantic grasp for legitimacy and respectability by the 84-year-old abortionist and his followers. The most telling moment in the campaign came when Cathie Colombo, a woman described as a long-time assistant to Morgentaler, told a reporter that to deny her boss the honour “is blasphemy” and “a national embarrassment.”

One can almost see the beads of sweat forming on the woman’s brow as she mouthed these words, which at once reveal both a lack of familiarity with reason (unless, of course, one considers Morgentaler to be a sacred figure) and an unbecoming desperation. But one should not be surprised at the zealousness and self-righteousness displayed by Colombo; after all, she apparently learned from the best, Morgentaler himself. Indeed, the Montreal abortion-rights crusader has long appealed more to passion than reason in his quest to turn Canada into a free-fire zone against the unborn.

Abortions were illegal in Canada until the Trudeau government passed the 1969 law allowing the procedure to take place, but only if a three-doctor hospital committee determined the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life or health. Yet, even this broad liberalization was not enough for Morgentaler, who defied the law by operating a private abortion clinic in Montreal, a dramatic move that led to a series of arrests, charges and trials, while also allowing him to wrap himself in the garb of a martyr-a misunderstood and persecuted reformer whose cries for justice were not being heeded.

Even after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s abortion law in 1988, leaving the procedure completely unlimited by law, Morgentaler continued crusading for more funding and better access for abortions.

Moreover, as revealed by Maclean’s, Morgentaler’s penchant for portraying himself as a holier-than-thou victim is evident even in the details of the letter, marked “personal and confidential,” that he wrote to Trudeau on August 28, 1973. The missive was discovered by George Egerton, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, while he was researching documents in the newly opened Trudeau archives. The letter ended up in my hands because of my long public record of opposition to abortion, and I gave it to Maclean’s in order to ensure the document received national coverage in a mainstream publication.

The letter reveals much about Morgentaler, not only because of what he wrote but also because of the impressions left by what he did not write. In other words, there is much to be read between the lines. Not inconsequentially, the letter also raises questions about the extent to which the Liberal cabinets of the day in both Ottawa and Quebec City had a vested interest in the abortion debate.

Morgentaler begins the two-page, typed, single-spaced letter with the salutation, “Dear Pierre,” after which he informs the prime minister that, “On August 15 the Montreal police raided my clinic; they also had a search warrant for my home and found the correspondence with you which I have kept confidential according to your expressed wishes.”

He continues, “My reason for writing you is to advise you that this correspondence is now in the hands of someone in the Montreal police department . . . I do not think there is anything embarrassing to you in it since we mainly discussed changing the laws on abortion, but thought I should advise you of what had occurred in the event this correspondence might be misused by them.”

His putative reason for writing the letter now dispensed with, Morgentaler then devotes the rest of the document to getting something “off my chest,” that being his contention that he is being persecuted, that he does not receive the official support he deserves, and that the lack of such support is hypocritical.

“I am not a masochist by nature and do not relish the prospect of spending additional time in Canadian prisons after 5 years lost in German ghettos and concentration camps,” he tells Trudeau, “so I am going to fight this fight until the bitter end – firmly convinced not only of the moral rightness of my course of action, but also of the hypocrisy, injustice and, indeed, unconstitutionality of the laws under which I am being tried. Please do not misunderstand. I am neither complaining nor looking to you for help. . .”

Maybe so, but Morgentaler then drops a bombshell. “Do I have to convince you really of the hypocrisy of the present laws?” he asks. “Do you know that in my clinic, I have helped wives, daughters, mistresses and relatives of members of the Federal and Provincial Cabinet, including some relatives of yours?

“Do you know that Dr. Leon Trudeau, a cousin of yours, has been referring cases to me? Do you know that Quebec ministers who officially came out against abortion, have had relatives treated in my clinic and helped there? Do you know that a relative of [Quebec health minister] Claude Castonguay (who refused to recognize my clinic as requested by me) has had an abortion in my clinic just the day before I was raided? If she knew she would be safe there, does he not know that all patients would be? Or does he not want to know?”

Morgentaler continues with an unsympathetic examination of the difficult political situation in which he believes Trudeau has found himself over the abortion issue. “Would it be wrong to conclude that the rights of women have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency?” he writes. “And do you not carry moral responsibility for the suffering of women resulting from lack of access to safe abortions by your decision not to amend this law?”

He concludes, “I hope you will forgive me the expression of frank and sometimes critical opinions. I do it, I assure you, without any malice whatsoever. I also want to assure you that if I refer to prominent people having had safe abortions in my clinic it is not with the intention of embarrassing anyone but only to bring into stronger focus the hypocrisy and absurdity of the law.

“I must say I do not really know what this letter to you can accomplish except, perhaps, that if you read it as a message from one man of goodwill to another, written honestly, though with some passion, possibility you will give it some thought.”

We do not know the nature of Trudeau’s immediate response to this letter, but we do know his long-term response: he did nothing to further liberalize the abortion law. It was the Supreme Court of Canada which, in a case involving Morgentaler himself, ruled in 1988 that the 1969 law was in breach of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is perhaps a testament to the strength of Trudeau’s character that he refused to budge from his position, even though Morgentaler’s letter could be viewed as a none-too-thinly-veiled threat that, failing to amend the law, names would be named and alleged hypocrites exposed.

Could it really be true that Morgentaler did not appreciate the impact his revelations would have on Trudeau? Could it really be that, while on one hand declaring that he sent his letter without malice and had no intention of embarrassing anyone, that, on the other hand, he did not recognize that his protestations of purity existed in the long shadow of an implied threat of exposure? Blackmail is certainly too strong of a word to use here, but there is, nevertheless, something sinister about the dark facts Morgentaler marshaled in his extraordinary letter.

Of course, it may well be true that Morgentaler’s zealousness and self-righteousness prevented him from appreciating the menacing nature of his letter. In other words, his view of himself as a martyr could have distorted his judgement. We are left, then, with a choice about Morgentaler, either option of which does not flatter him: either he was a sinister plotter or he was a foolish zealot.

One imagines that both pro-choicers and pro-lifers will have much to say about this letter: pro-choicers that it shows what a resolute man Morgentaler was (and is); pro-lifers that the hypocrisy it reveals helps explain how abortion became legal in the first place, and how it is able to continue today, utterly unfettered by regulation.

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