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Media Bites: The Five Camps of Thought on Dr. Morgentaler

06/03/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 08/03/2013 05:12 EDT
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July 02, 2008 - Dr. Henry Morgentaler speaks at a press conference this morning at his Toronto abortion clinic, after it was announced he will receive the Order of Canada. Toronto Star/Tony Bock (Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The mere fact that you clicked this link indicates you probably have pretty strong views on the life and legacy of the late Dr. Morgentaler. And why not? As Canadian historical figures go, the doc's relevance isn't hard to grasp, and his signature accomplishment -- making abortion universally legal and accessible in Canada -- isn't terribly complicated or subtle. So no surprise our opinions on the man aren't terribly complicated or subtle either.

Since his death on Wednesday, the Canadian editorial pages have been chock-full of Morgentaler obituaries, with reactions running the full gamut. Basically there's five camps:

1. Morgentaler was awesome!

Canada of yore was a misogynist hellscape. Women died of "rupture and infection in back-alley abortions" or were "forced to call themselves insane in front of a committee of three doctors and beg for an abortion." Then Dr. Morgentaler went to the Supreme Court and got them to declare abortion an inalienable human right. Conclusion: the man was a "gift to women."

Or so says Morgentaler's close pal/Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick in a hagiography as rich and weepy as you'll ever find. I'm literally "getting the keyboard all wet," says Heather.

My friend had "a singular and sophisticated world view" with love at its centre, she writes. Henry loved women, loved mothers, and loved the idea of a society free of spiteful, unwanted children who grew into monsters because no one loved them. He began life as a Polish Jew persecuted for who he was, and ended it as a Canadian immigrant bullied for what he believed. He survived both lives with courage, friends, and history on his side.

Few can say the same.

2. Morgentaler was history's greatest monster!

Then we have Brian Lilley over at Sun News. "I won't be shedding a tear for this man's passing," he said on his Friday show, looking more humourless than usual. No, not even a single drop for this extremist baby-killer who "brought great evil to this country" by turning abortion into "just another choice, like dying your hair or getting your ears pierced."

Brian's impression was that "this was a man with a very dark soul," almost "dead on the inside," in fact. And you can trust Brian because they were friends. OK, maybe not good friends like Heather, but they did meet once, and Brian says the guy totally "creeped me out."

"If Morgentaler was motivated by the Holocaust," he concludes, "then it was from the dark side of it, the side that worked for death. Because that's what he did." His whole adult life.

Few can say the same.

3. Morgentaler was an important guy about whom I have no particular feelings one way or another!

Implausible as it may sound, some media outlets are more cautious than the Toronto Star or Sun News when confronting the most divisive social issue of our time. Like the Calgary Herald editorial board! They took the Ron Swanson approach to Morgentaler's passing, delivering a eulogy consisting entirely of uncontentious statements of fact.

"Whether you think Dr. Henry Morgentaler was a hero or a hellion, one thing that is indisputable is that the renowned abortion doctor and activist was a man of incredible courage," they write, followed by a bunch of biographical details and calendar dates capped by the stirring conclusion that "whether people like what he accomplished or not, he changed this country in a profound way."

And he certainly... existed.

4. Morgentaler was OK, I guess!

What's this? Nuance on abortion? Blink and you might miss it, but it's there.

The pro-choice Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, for instance, admits Morgentaler's tumultuous personal life and ugly personality make him a "flawed candidate for sainthood," while pro-lifer Farzana Hassan in the Toronto Sun concedes the doc's sincerity in shifting abortions from alley to hospital "must be commended."

Wente's also tired of having our abortion debate dominated by "people wielding giant coathangers and the people wielding giant images of mangled fetuses" -- ie, the "absolutists on both sides," while Hassan allows "there are no easy answers" on questions of life, only "moral issues to be addressed on both sides."

So yeah, some people don't know how to write abortion columns.

5. Morgentaler was a rich businessman!

Well, marketing is supposed to be one of the stages of mourning, right? (Or was that bargaining?)

At the National Post, Jon Kay figures that regardless of anything else, Morgentaler deserves kudos for his ability to "make a fortune as a medical entrepreneur" -- a rare Canadian talent.

Morgentaler started out as a doc-of-all-trades, notes Jon, and it was "only after he was deluged by female clients seeking abortions" that he "realized just how massive was this untapped market." So he opened private abortion clinics all over the place (the one kind of private clinic this country tolerates) and became wealthy enough to afford the mansions, vacations, and mistresses that proved such rich fodder for his critics.

It's a fresh interpretation, this idea of Morgentaler as a capitalist success story, and perhaps the most useful.

At its core, after all, abortion is simply a consumer product subject to supply and demand. And it's only because we live in a society with so much violence, promiscuity, carelessness, and ignorance that they keep getting bought.

Dr. Morgentaler was an entrepreneur who made a lot of money treating symptoms. Hopefully there's as much cash in curing the disease.

Politicians On Morgentaler's Death