Morgentaler: Humanist or ripoff? Part Two
THE UNCERTIFIED HUMAN
Vol. 3, No. 7
1973: What Really Happened When Morgentaler Was Arrested
We attempted to print this story in October, 1974. We were warned against doing so at that time. We have now received permission from the Montreal Crown Prosecutor to go ahead.
On August 15, 1973, Ms. M. Charlebois walked into Dr. Henry Morgentaler's freelance Montreal abortion clinic and asked for an abortion. He agreed, not knowing that she had come to have him arrested and close the clinic. In doing so, she began what, for better or worse, became a cause celebre trial more perhaps in the press -- than in the courtroom. Ironically, she herself was not called to testify at Morgentaler's trial, and so far, the regular press has featured mainly accounts by his defenders of what happened. These accounts suffer from the lack of significant detail that always accompanies a whitewash job.
We have asked Ms. Charlebois to give her account of what happened -- to set the record straight. Here it is: "My name is M. Charlebois. I am married and employed and have never been pregnant. I am pro life. I believe that every individual has the right to life from conception to natural death as well as other rights. But unless the right to life of all is protected from conflict with lesser rights, all rights soon come into jeopardy. Abortion takes a human life and, therefore, cheapens human value, any way you look at It. I am a feminist. However, unlike some other feminist women I cannot go along with a practice which embodies the very worst form of discrimination, the denial of humanity.
"I first became interested in Dr. Morgentaler when a friend brought to my attention the fact that Dr. Morgentaler was attempting to throw the present law restricting abortions to cases of presumed medical necessity into disrepute and introduce abortion on demand. He did this by running an illegal abortion clinic openly, five days a week, doing three abortions an hour, charging $200 each, and thereby making a great deal of money. My initial feeling was that Dr. Morgentaler had no concern for the rights of the unborn but as I became more involved, I came to the conclusion that he had no respect for the dignity of women and no concern for standards of health care either. I felt that I ought to try, if I could, to put an end to his mercenary and bloody activities.
"Some people have asked why the police could not have arrested him without my help. In fact, he had been busted 3 times before, but the police could not capture enough information on by breaking into the clinic. Morgentaler keeps no medical records or follow-up of any sort on his patients there and does no tests, so there are no test results. I got in touch with the Montreal police and said that if they wished to use me to try once again, I was willing to go. Previously, they had just burst in unannounced every so often, and had never used a woman, who would be able to come as a witness. As it happens, there are only five women on the Montreal police department and none were considered suitable for the job. The police accepted my offer.
"I made an appointment with Dr. Morgentaler by phone, going through his referral clinic which advertises in the paper. There was no difficulty associated in making this appointment, a fact which frightened me. But I went, and upon arriving in Montreal on Tuesday, August 14, I met the police detectives who were carry out the arrest of Morgentaler. A young police officer was to accompany me to the clinic, posing as my boyfriend. To substantiate testimony, he would have strapped to his chest a microphone radio transmitting to a tape recorder in a prowling patrol car following us.
"On Wednesday morning we travelled to the referral clinic in downtown Montreal. This clinic operates for the benefit of several illegal abortionists and is centrally located. You ask for the abortionist you want -- I don't know who funds it, or how. I told the woman there, who was in her early twenties that I was a "student, unmarried and pregnant." This seemed to her to be self-explanatory. There was no counselling except for, "Are you nervous? -- then, don't be nervous" sort. There was no attempt to find out what my problems were beyond the medical history, "how pregnant are you -- when did you have your last period" stage. But she came on friendly and did try to make me feel relaxed and to make it as easy an experience as possible for me and I suppose that she thought she was doing a good thing.
She confirmed our office appointment with Morgentaler for the abortion for that afternoon. I have been asked whether the rapidity of the whole thing distressed me -- that is, would it have distressed me if I was really thinking about abortion. I donít know. Perhaps some girls would be glad that the responsibility of deciding had been taken out of their hands by this rapid fire procedure. It did not seem to occur to the woman, however, that any time for consideration was necessary, So no effort was made to make sure that I was making the right decision for me. It was obvious that they all believed that abortion is preferable to any pregnancy that was not a planned one or that was the least bit inconvenient.
"She did give us a crash course in sex and birth control information that was so basic that it seemed unlikely that anyone could be pregnant and still remain ignorant of such basic facts, as how couples have sex and so forth. We were urged to use birth control to avoid this hassle again. We were not given any birth control pamphlets or other guidance of the more sophisticated sort, but during the birds-and-bees-lecture, a curious thing occurred. The woman opened her purse (while on the phone to someone else) and took out a mashed piece of cherry pie. She looked at it for a moment and said, "Oh, my little fetus." Perhaps she said this to amuse herself, perhaps to break the ice with us. It did not, in fact, break the ice. We didnít laugh. "We were told the procedure of abortion. We were not asked for visible proof of pregnancy, such as a positive test, or offered one on the spot. We were not warned of known medical dangers such as longterm sterility or subsequent miscarriage, pre-maturity or stillbirth. In fact, when the officer asked about the dangers, he was assured that there were none. I was told not to bathe for a week or have sex for a few weeks. None of the information regarding my blood type or the gestational age of the baby (mythical, since I was not pregnant) was passed on to Morgentalerís clinic, only my name. This confirmed my suspicion that even medical history was of little interest, only Morgentalerís ability to do the abortion. "We then went to Morgentalerís east end clinic. It is a white bungalow in a middle class neighborhood with the symbol of the Quebec medical centre on the front entrance. We passed several Quebec pro lifers demonstrating in front of the clinic. In the waiting room there were men waiting for their girlfriends and wives, and the university graduate student whose case was to figure prominently in the press a few months later. While we were waiting, a man entered, visibly upset, demanding to see Morgentaler. We heard that he wanted to know why his wife was still hemorrhaging three days after her abortion there. The receptionist dealt with him as quickly as possible.
"Morgentaler talked to us for about five minutes. He questioned us briefly concerning the length of pregnancy, if I had been tested, but required no proof of pregnancy, blood type, medical record, address -- etc. I found it significant that subsequently Eleanor Pelrineís article in the May (1974) CHATELAINE described me as in my late twenties. Presumably, Morgentaler had told her this (who else would know?), yet I told Morgentaler specifically that my reason for coming to him was that I was under 21 and did not want hospital records to appear on my parentsí OHIP. Obviously not only does he keep no records, but has a short memory: one would think that he would not forget the patient who went so far toward putting him in jail so easily. "He then described the operation carefully as a five minute procedure and said it would hurt only slightly, after which I could rest in the basement recovery room for an hour. He tried to allay fears that I might have, then asked for the $200 in cash which he counted out and placed in his top desk drawer. My officer asked if he might be with me in the abortion room, (hoping to record it on tape) but the request was refused. There were two abortion rooms, one on each side of his office. While I got ready in one room, he was aborting the graduate student in the other. I was assisted by a young woman who spoke very kindly to me, assuring me of the ease and speed of abortion. She spoke vehemently, however, against the demonstrators at the front of the clinic, calling them a group of "post-menopausal women." (In reality, the majority of the demonstrators I noted, were teenagers and young adults of both sexes.) She continued, saying these people knew nothing about the fetus, and cared little for women. She emphasized the smallness of the fetus, making many motions with her hands, declaring that such a tiny blob could not possibly be human. I thought that if the unborn at 2-1/2 months was as small as she indicated, it wouldnít come close to filling the aspirator bottle waiting to contain it.
"Then Dr. Morgentaler and another woman entered and told me to lie down and not to be nervous. They moved the suction aspirator closer to my legs. At this point, I was terrified. Dr. Morgentaler prepared to place the needle and the suction apparatus in my vagina. I began to shake noticeably and I cried. I said that I could not possibly go through with it, that I was wrong to have thought I could and that I wanted to stop and talk to my boyfriend immediately. Dr. Morgentaler was comforting, and said I was probably just nervous and that surely since I had come hundreds of miles to have the abortion I couldnít be wrong. He offered to let me think about it, and have the abortion later that day. He insisted on returning the money, called my "boyfriend" into the office, and this triggered the arrest.
"Morgentaler and his women helpers were furious at this and he rushed to his desk and pushed some buzzers that were hidden in the desk. He phoned his lawyer angrily. By this time, I was again dressed and entered his office. He shouted at me, calling me "a goddam bitch". The police took him to the district jail where I also returned in order to make a report. The women who had had abortions were asked if they wanted hospital care. This was particularly fortunate for the graduate student from Ghana, because she was in great pain. I felt particularly heartbroken about her.
"I spent several hours that afternoon in the police station, several times walking past Morgentaler's cell. It was short of ridiculous when the detective at the desk started receiving phone calls from the irate media men claiming that Morgentaler was being brutalized and starved. Actually, he was being kept more comfortably than I was. When I heard the absurd nonsense being spread about by the media, I became disillusioned about the prospects of justice being done. I had no particular desire to see Morgentaler behind bars, only to see an end to his illegal abortion practices.
"That was how it happened. My feelings about the man are varied. Morgentaler is a clever and skilled doctor who does not perform illicit abortions just for the money, though the money is excellent. He feels that he is a man rebelling against the old guard -- He is a hero in an imagined revolution. If I had to do it over again, I probably would, if only because it would close his abortion clinic for a while. Obviously, I have my biases, just as Eleanor Pelrine has hers. I also have facts, newsworthy and relevant. Yet why did the media present only one side, seek only selective and highly distorted portions of the transcripts? Why did they, for the most part, completely misunderstand the nature and meaning of the various judicial decisions. Indeed, why did one large newspaper in Toronto, upon learning of the existence of another side to the story, refuse, after an editors' meeting, to hear it? And if the Toronto Star finds it necessary to headline an article on Morgentaler, "Morgentaler: Saint or Sinner?Ē then clearly, that reporter has missed the point."
M. Charlebois, Summer: 1973
Disciplinary Committee hearing based on the treatment of the graduate student from Ghana, spoken of above. Note the correlation between certain details of this account, and of the decision of the Disciplinary Committee.
Back to Part One