I was asked to comment on Dr Henry Morgentaler’s death on both radio and television and to write a comment article by the Ottawa Citizen. I refused all of these requests on the grounds that I believe in the adage “One should not speak ill of the dead.” But many others, whose views of Morgentaler ranged from seeing him as a Canadian hero to labelling him as evil personified, were not so reticent. So, what might their reactions tell us about current Canadian culture and values?

The one point where they all agreed was that Morgentaler “changed Canada.” Where they strongly disagreed was whether this was for better or worse, a major victory or a profound tragedy.

Those who see totally unrestricted access to abortion as upholding the rights of women, respect for women’s autonomy and their “freedom to choose,” and as an affirmation of women’s dignity, see Morgentaler as a hero, who won a great victory for women.

Those who see Morgentaler’s own interventions as a physician carrying out thousands of abortions and, through the court cases in which he was acquitted, causing the abortion provisions in the Criminal Code to be struck down, thereby enabling hundreds of thousands more abortions, see him as a serial killer — a murderer of unborn children — with an unprecedented number of innocent victims, whose numbers continue to increase in the abortion facilities he established across Canada. They see this loss of human life for which they hold Dr Morgentaler, together with his supporters, responsible, as a great tragedy.

These two descriptions apply to the identical situation, that of abortion, but they differ radically in how they cause us to see that situation. The lens in the former is solely on the woman who wants an abortion. The lens in the latter is on the killing of the unborn child. And the language used in each is radically different and elicits radically different moral intuition and emotional responses, as to which description should prevail.

Abortion involves a conflict between the values of respect for women’s autonomy — “choice” — and respect for life. Those who are pro-choice give priority to autonomy; those who are pro-life give priority to respect for life.

Pro-choice advocates argue that abortion is an entirely personal decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her physician; that the fetus is not a “person”, who should be legally protected, but is just a “bunch of cells that is part of the woman’s body, which she has the right to control”; and that any woman who does not want an abortion is not forced to have one. These justifications are all at the level of the individual woman who wants an abortion.

But having no legal restrictions on abortion affects more than just the individual woman — or, indeed, the individual unborn child who is aborted. It damages the value of respect for human life in general, at the societal level. Respect for life has two limbs: it must be upheld, not only, with respect to each individual human life, important as that is, but also, with regard to respect for human life in general, as a societal value.

Even if we ignore the failure to respect the individual unborn child’s life, abortion, especially taxpayer funded abortion-on-demand, contravenes respect for human life in general. Consequently, there is something profoundly disordered and deeply tragic about celebrating abortion, as some pro-choice people want us to do. And celebrating Morgentaler’s contribution to changing Canadian society necessarily entails celebrating abortion.

The prime minister and the Conservative government have been criticized for not paying formal tribute to Morgentaler on the occasion of his death. At least, this is consistent with their adamant stance that they “will not open the abortion debate”, much as many Canadians, including some of their own Conservative members of Parliament, believe it is urgent to do so.

Or is this silence just another example of a lack of courage on their part with respect to abortion? In failing to discuss what the law on abortion should be, they are allowing the 25-year legal void created when Morgentaler won his case in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988 to continue.

This complete lack of any protection for the unborn child was not anticipated by the Supreme Court; all the judges, both in the majority and in dissent, recognized that Parliament could pass laws on abortion and that it was up to them as legislators, not the judiciary, to do so.

In fact, Morgentaler himself set limits on abortion. I was appearing with him on a television show and asked him whether he would abort a 26-week old fetus, simply because the mother no longer wanted a child. Much to my surprise, he said “No.”

People have speculated about the precipitating factors that led Morgentaler to become a champion of abortion. The kindest explanation is the compassion he felt towards women who were experiencing a crisis pregnancy. But his catalytic contribution to a “culture of death” in Canada has been enormous and it is difficult to understand, when one takes into account that he was a Holocaust survivor, how he could, in good conscience, have promoted that.

And what of the future, now that Morgentaler is no longer with us? Might a leader emerge among the increasing numbers of young people, especially on Canadian university campuses, who see abortion as raising serious ethical issues about protecting the most vulnerable human beings among us? Might they be able to take Canadian society in the opposite direction from where Morgentaler’s actions have led, that is, towards a culture of greater respect for human life?

Margaret Somerville is director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...