Henry Morgentaler was a Polish-Canadian doctor and activist. Born in 1923, his family were killed by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland in the Second World War. Morgentaler himself spent a year in the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, he began his medical schooling in Germany and Belgium before emigrating to Canada in 1950. He completed his MD at the Université de Montréal in 1953 and opened his medical practice in the city two years later. Morgentaler was the first doctor in Canada to openly defy abortion law by opening an abortion clinic in 1968. Following his original Montreal clinic, he opened clinics in Winnipeg and Toronto as well. At the time of his talk, he had been arrested and tried numerous times in Quebec and Ontario, but was only once jailed (from 1974-1975). His repeated acquittals in Quebec inspired the province to proclaim that it would not enforce the federal abortion law, making it functionally obsolete. In Montreal, he was the president of the Humanist Fellowship, and director of the Civil Liberties Union. Morgentaler was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Humanist of the Year Award from the Humanist Association of Canada in 1972 and the American Humanist Association’s 1975 Humanist of the Year Award.

Morgentaler’s lecture was a part of a series on “Health and Human Dignity.” In it, he argued that legal abortions were necessary for health and human dignity. He began by outlining the safety of modern medical abortions, and discussed the various techniques and where and when they could be performed. In 1985, abortions were the safest surgical procedure available, especially when performed in a specialized clinic. Despite their safety, they were inaccessible to most women in Canada. Indeed, the state of access to abortion in Canada was, he said, an indictment of the medical profession’s care provided to women. As a result of restrictive abortion laws, many women were unable to access abortions in their community, and had to travel to Quebec or America to receive timely care. His many trials and acquittals, Morgentaler said, showed that the federal abortion law was manifestly obsolete, repeatedly judged by citizens to be unfair and oppressive. He believed it was a moral obligation for the medical profession to provide medical services to people who need them: abortion was not a crime, was never a crime, and will never be a crime. Concluding with the moral aspects of abortion, Morgentaler stated that reproductive freedom was a necessary component of women’s liberation.

The lecture was on February 5, 1985. Morgentaler’s talk was protested by anti-abortion activists and church leaders while a standing-room-only crowd of approximately 1000 gathered to hear it. Queen’s officials repeatedly defended the choice to host Morgentaler because of unique experience with one of the most controversial issues facing humanity and the corresponding question of access to health care.

Poster for Henry's lecture.
A cartoon of Morgentaler printed in the Queen’s Journal.