From the Web site of the University of Western Ontario (aka “Western”):
- On Thursday, June 16 at 10 a.m. Western will confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a humanist leader who has promoted the idea that people have a right to control their own sexuality and reproduction, without interference by the state.
- He founded the first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1968 and in the year that followed he challenged the criminal code by providing safe abortions for women in his clinic in Montreal.
- His belief in a “Woman’s Right to Choose” eventually led to a change in the law.
In the 1970s and 80s, Canada had a law which permitted abortion in hospitals, but only if certain criteria were met. Dr. Morgentaler decided the quickest way to legalize abortion on demand was to flout the law. He opened clinics in several provinces and offered abortions without regard to the legal criteria in place at the time. Inevitably, Dr. Morgentaler was charged with having committed a crime, just as he had planned.
After several legal battles, the case made its way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988. In R. v. Morgentaler, the court ruled that Canada’s abortion law constituted an unjustifiable violation of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads,
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
On the other hand, the court recognized that the state might have a legitimate interest in the protection of the fetus. A different law might be deemed acceptable, providing that it achieved a better balance between the competing interests at stake: the woman’s right to security of the person and the state’s interest in protecting the fetus. In particular, the state might justifiably limit access to abortion in the later months of a pregnancy.
The Canadian legislature made one attempt to replace the abortion law but could not achieve adequate support among Members of Parliament. In Canada there is presently no law prohibiting abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. Much of the credit (if that is the right word) for the situation must go to Dr. Henry Morgentaler.
Not surprisingly, Western’s decision to confer an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Morgentaler is quite controversial. According to TheStar.com:
- Joanne McGarry, a Western graduate and executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, said her organization is asking disgruntled alumni to register their displeasure by stopping their donations to the university.
- “This man’s sole contribution to Canada has been the taking of life in unprecedented numbers,” said McGarry.
UWO alumni have started on online petition to protest the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler. To date, they have collected 11,261 signatures.
Here is my take on Western’s decision, as expressed in an open letter to UWO’s President Paul Davenport. (I sent the original via e-mail on June 17, 2005. I haven’t received a reply, but I don’t presume that Western is under any obligation to reply to me.)
This e-mail should probably be directed to the Senate, since that is the body that awards honorary degrees. I couldn’t find an e-mail address to contact the Senate, so I am voicing my objection through you.
Dr. Morgentaler represents different things to different people. For people who reduce abortion to a woman’s choice, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social good. But for people who are mindful not only of the woman, but also of the child whose life ends at abortion, Dr. Morgentaler is a symbol of a great social evil.
You comment, “Research universities like ours attach a very high value to encouraging differing points of view and debate.” But how does the decision to honour Dr. Morgentaler “encourage” the alternative point of view on abortion?
As you know, Canada has had no abortion law since Dr. Morgentaler’s personal victory in 1988. Over 100,000 pregnancies are aborted in Canada every year; to my mind, this is a horrific statistic. There is no law against third-trimester abortions. The child is not recognized as a person but stripped of his or her rights in law. Thus no attempt is made to balance the rights of the child and the mother.
That is what Dr. Morgentaler symbolizes for me. A very great social evil, indeed.
Some day, perhaps, another figure will emerge and achieve some kind of compromise which acknowledges the child as a party to the abortion. That figure may deserve to be honoured by Canadian institutions and individuals.
But Morgentaler? The Senate’s decision to award him an honorary degree is a disgrace to the University of Western Ontario.
I could offer a further explanation of my opinion, but I think it’s better to turn things over to you, the reader, at this point.
All points of view are welcome here, with a proviso that should be clear from my previous post. Present your position, defend it vigorously, but please … don’t stoop to personal insults. Ad hominem arguments can only diminish your credibility.