Nothing but contempt: Putting the lie to media coverage of Dr. Henry Morgentaler
“I have nothing but contempt for people who wish to deny women one of the fundamental rights to control their reproduction.” – Dr. Henry Morgentaler, 2010.
In the media avalanche following Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death on May 29, two radically different views of the man quickly emerged. It was a rare article or newscast that didn’t use words like “polarizing” or “controversial” or “divisive” to describe him. The Globe and Mail was first out of the gate with the phrase “revered and hated” dominating their headline, while CBC gave us a choice between “hero or murderer.” Other media competed with catchy alliterations like “lauded and loathed,” “hero or hellion,” and “revered and reviled.”
Although nearly all mainstream media sources quoted pro-choice views, most also interviewed at least one anti-choice spokesperson (22 out of 35 news articles or broadcasts that I reviewed). Apparently, the media thinks that view has some kind of legitimacy and must be presented against the pro-choice view in the name of “balance.” Well, NO. The anti-choice position — that women must be compelled to carry every pregnancy to term under threat of criminal law regardless of circumstances — is an extremist view held by only 5 per cent of Canadians. It is also profoundly mistaken, cruel and undemocratic. As such, it does not deserve equal time or respect in Canada.
That tiny 5 per cent minority has great representation though — most, if not all, anti-choice organizations in Canada adhere to that same extremist belief. They don’t advocate it openly anymore because they know the public finds it abhorrent. But don’t be fooled — their dream is to ban abortion completely with no exceptions, the same goal as other anti-choice groups around the world. Recent cases in Ireland and El Salvador have shown conclusively that the anti-choice movement considers women to be merely vessels for babies, and that their lives should be sacrificed even for a doomed fetus with no chance of survival. Savita Halappanavar died tragically because of that doctrine — after suffering three days of “pro-life” induced pain and agony — and Beatriz in El Salvador came close to death’s door because of the same malevolent belief.
Anti-choice people are not “pro-life,” they are pro-death. Yet the mainstream media continues to give space to these fanatics. Of course, it’s partly to provoke controversy and attract a bigger audience, but it may also be related to how anti-choice discourse has evolved over time. The movement has failed to persuade people with religious dogma and pro-fetus rhetoric, so its revised strategy is to defend human rights, express concern for women’s well-being, and cite science as backup. It’s a slick ploy that might fool some people, including naïve reporters. In reality however, the human rights that anti-choicers want to defend are for fertilized eggs and fetuses only, they believe women’s well-being is innately tied to staying pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen, and their own B.A.D. science industry “proves” abortion harms women. (All such claims are scientifically false or exaggerated.)
Allow me to share a few indisputable facts to help put this whole matter into context. One of Canada’s truly greatest heroes has died. He was a human being with flaws like the rest of us, but he unquestionably demonstrated incredible personal courage and strength throughout his life. He survived the Holocaust, became a respected family doctor, and then put his entire career and reputation on the line because of a compelling desire to help women and save their lives. During his struggle, he inspired millions of people, won a historic court case that became a key foundation for human rights jurisprudence in Canada, and was eventually given the Order of Canada. These things don’t happen to murderers — they happen to heroes.
Dr. Morgentaler’s heroism gave women the precious gift of reproductive freedom — which literally means freedom from death and injury due to unsafe abortions, freedom from the fear and shame of being treated like criminals, freedom from the indignity of having to beg for medical care in front of a panel of male doctors, freedom to plan their families and have children when they’re ready, freedom to pursue an education and career, freedom to fully participate in public life, and freedom to be human beings in their own right with the same status and dignity as men.
For almost 30 years, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has guaranteed rights equally to both men and women. Canadians support equality for women, there is no controversy over this. Most people also understand that women cannot be equal if they’re not allowed to control their fertility. Those who want laws protecting fetuses either don’t understand or don’t care how this would affect the human rights of pregnant women, who are the sole caretakers of fetuses by biological necessity. When a woman’s life and personhood are subordinated to that of her fetus, the result is a litany of grievous harms. Proof of this is easily found in any country around the world that gives rights to fetuses, including the United States.
Yet here we are in 2013, with the mainstream media still printing hateful comments from people living in the Dark Ages. Like Jonathan Kay’s repellent libel in the National Post that “Morgentaler was a capitalist who saw an untapped market.” It’s common knowledge, and a no-brainer once you think about it, that Dr. Morgentaler plowed all of his extra money back into his clinics and his endless legal battles, and often ran out of funds. But there’s little room for facts or logic in the deluded brains of anti-choicers who fervently believe that Dr. Morgentaler latched upon a super-easy “get rich quick” scheme — abandon a successful medical practice, break the law to provide illegal abortions, and endure decades of defamation, hatred, anti-Semitism, death threats, assaults, clinic bombings, police raids, arrests and prosecutions, and a prison sentence.
Likewise, it takes a stubbornly narrow mind to doubt Morgentaler’s motives, which were unquestionably rooted in genuine compassion for others: “I decided to break the law to provide a necessary medical service because women were dying at the hands of butchers and incompetent quacks and there was no one there to help them. The law was barbarous, cruel and unjust. I had been in a concentration camp and I knew what suffering was. If I can ease suffering I feel perfectly justified in doing so.” His
biographer Catherine Dunphy said: “…he totally believed that if every child were a beloved, wanted child, then there would have been no concentration camps, there would be no murderers. That was what motivated him.”
Anti-choice spokespersons were widely quoted giving their reactions to Morgentaler’s death, no matter how offensive or absurd. CBC’s Power & Politics interviewed anti-choice spokesperson Alyssa Golob as she sat next to pro-choice veteran Carolyn Egan. Both Egan and the anchor appeared taken aback as Golob blathered on about Morgentaler’s legacy of death and decapitated babies. They weren’t the only ones disgusted by Golob’s radical rantings. In response to the program, feminist blogger Fern Hill tweeted: “Ok then, when Nelson Mandela dies, they’ll have a KKKer, right?”
Allison Jones of Canadian Press interviewed or quoted four different anti-choice spokespersons in a story that was widely distributed by many news sites. Mary-Ellen Douglas of Campaign Life Coalition hoped that Dr. Morgentaler “repented before the very end” and said, “I pray… that this will be an end to the killing in Canada.” What planet is Douglas living on? The killing in Canada ended in 1969 when women stopped dying from illegal unsafe abortion. And there’s no rational reason Dr. Morgentaler’s death would do anything to reverse our current practice around abortion. It was his life that changed the law, which will be a lasting legacy because it’s firmly rooted in our justice system and society. Also quoted were the National Campus Life Network and the Toronto Right to Life Association, both lamenting the “thousands of deaths” of “unborn children” and Dr. Morgentaler’s “destructive legacy” and “deep involvement in the injustice of abortion.” Who cares about women, anyway? Certainly not these spokespersons, who are “pro-life” between conception and birth, full stop.
Another Canadian Press story dutifully repeats a load of sanctimonious bullshit from Georges Buscemi of the Quebec Life Coalition, with nary a word of pro-choice balance in sight. An anti-choice vigil in Montreal will offer a “group prayer for the soul of Dr. Henry Morgentaler,” even though the group considers him one of the “biggest criminals in Canadian history,” responsible for “tens of thousands of deaths in Canada.” The article reports that they’re holding the vigil for their long-time foe “because their ethos is about respecting human life.” Unfortunately, the fact that anti-choicers have zero respect for half the human life on the planet did not make it into the story.
One last but not least example: Laura Stone of Global News quoted several paragraphs of ravings from Maurice Vellacott, probably Canada’s worst Member of Parliament and a hardline anti-choicer. Stone didn’t offer any qualification or counterpoint to his irresponsible statements, which included numerous untrue or misleading claims about the complications of abortion. Stone even quoted Vellacott’s
conclusion that “women have been harmed immeasurably by Morgentaler’s unrestricted abortion regime,” again without citing scientific evidence that the exact opposite is true.
The lives and health of half the population are at stake here, so why is the mainstream media casually repeating dangerous medical misinformation from the mouths of zealots without any correction? Why did the media allow extremists to propagate their vicious libel and stupid lies about Dr. Morgentaler? And why is the media still giving equal time to interviewing these pro-death proponents, as if women’s right to life is up for debate in Canada? Pro-choice advocates have had enough.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada is collaborating with Dammit Janet! bloggers on a project to hold mainstream media to account when they publish or broadcast anti-choice hatred and propaganda in the name of “balance.” Please email joyce[at]arcc-cdac.ca to alert us to examples, or to help with the project.
Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada’s national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.