Skeletons in the Closet

Morgentaler blasts his competition, but his own record is controversial

By Celeste McGovern

Henry Morgentaler is accusing Alberta doctors of botching abortions. He claimed two weeks ago that his proposed new Edmonton clinic will rescue Alberta women from high abortion-related complication rates. Dr. Morgentaler plans to open his Alberta abortion shop at 10141 150 Street, Edmonton, on July 1. He says that he will sell women safer, faster abortions than his less practiced hospital competition. But critics say this is just a case of the pot calling the kettle black: Dr. Morgentaler’s own track record is not without blemish.

Dr. Morgentaler cited an Alberta Health report which put the province at the top of the list for abortion complications in Canada. He suggested that this could be due to local abortionists using outmoded techniques. A general practitioner himself, Dr. Morgentaler claims he can teach obstetrics, and gynecology specialists a few tricks of his trade at his planned freestanding Edmonton clinic.

State-of-the-art aborticide, of course, doesn’t come without a few difficult lessons. For instance, in 1973 a low-income, black foreign student entered Dr. Morgentaler’s Montreal clinic. He conducted a brief interview, in which she later testified that they discussed primarily the duration of her first pregnancy and whether she had enough money. Dr. Morgentaler accepted $80.00 in cash and a post-dated cheque for $70.00. Four days after her suction-abortion, the woman was admitted for six days to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital where doctors removed the remains of Dr. Morgentaler’s unfinished handiwork.

That misadventure formed the basis for a disciplinary hearing by the Professional Corporation of Physicians of Quebec which suspended Dr. Morgentaler’s medical licence in 1976 for a year. The committee stressed that the suspension was not only for doing illegal abortions but for doing them badly: for not holding a valid interview before the abortion, for failing almost completely to gather a case history of his client, for failing to perform the necessary pregnancy test or blood test, for not obtaining pathological examination of the “tissues” removed and for failing to follow up the state of health of his patients afterward.

The panel declared that Dr. Morgentaler’s behavior reflected “an attitude which is primarily directed to protecting his fees.” It was stated in the testimony that he had reduced his fee from $300 to $200.00 per abortion “and considers himself well paid at this rate. In fact, on the day he was arrested… [he] had already accomplished six abortions between 10 a.m. and noon.”

Based on his admission at trial of having by then performed up to 7,000 operations, Dr. Morgentaler was ordered by the Quebec Superior Court to pay the provincial government $354,799 in skipped taxes for the years 1969-72. The disciplinary medical board deplored his practice as one which “confers a mercenary character on the doctor-patient relationship,” and said it was “incapable of reconciling [Dr.Morgentaler’s] behavior with the humanitarian concern that [he] invoked throughout his defence.”

Dr. Morgentaler’s conviction was upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada on a question of law. What followed was as unprecedented as it was controversial. Then-justice minister Ron Basford, employing a seldom-used power, ordered a retrial and the conviction was overturned on the basis that it was now deemed “necessary” for Dr. Morgentaler to have broken the law to perform the abortion for which he had been arrested. The licence suspension was, as a result, nullified even though the sworn testimony and the censures of the medical committee stood.

Dr. Morgentaler has trouble recalling the whole of his disciplinary hearing clearly. He dismisses the criticisms against him as “unjustified. These people didn’t know anything about abortion,” he says. “I was the guy who specialized and pioneered this technique and they criticized me. It was all very biased.”

In fact, Dr. Morgentaler says he has been doing abortions to the exclusion of all else for the past 22 years. Oddly enough though, he is only now getting around to tabulating his own success rate. He estimates the complication rate from his clinics at a scanty O.1% to 0.2%, compared to the health board’s report of 5.5% in Alberta hospitals in 1987. However, because neither Dr. Morgentaler nor the hospitals consult with patients afterward, Dr. Morgentaler has no way of knowing how many abortions his clinics have botched.

The Montreal Gazette dragged another skeleton out of Dr Morgentaler’s closet in 1974. It reported that he had reused disposable polyethylenevacurettes” on patients. The manufacturer said that the sterilized instruments were sold in packages clearly marked “cannot be reused.” Other doctors questioned by the Gazette said that reuse of the unsterilized “vacurettes” could lead to transmission of such diseases as viral hepatitis, tetanus, venereal diseases, gaseous gangrene and’ Herpes 11. Today Dr. Morgentaler denies having reused the $3.30 disposables, though the newspaper article claimed he had admitted doing so in a letter to the manufacturer. (“The fact that [the original design] could be reused a few times was an advantage ‘to the doctor, even though a disadvantage to you,” wrote the irritated Dr. Morgentaler to the manufacturer.) According to Gazette lawyer Keith Hain, Dr. Morgentaler never took any legal action against the paper.

In 1985 an article appeared in the Toronto Star describing two very different accounts: one from Dr. Morgentaler and one from a former patient. The woman claimed that when she changed her mind at the last minute in Dr. Morgentaler’s operating room, they shoved a sanitary napkin in her mouth and did it anyway. He told the Toronto Star that the woman was offered the napkin to bite on as a matter of routine and that afterward she gave him a big hug. He also said the woman was a Latin American immigrant who had been frightened into complaining against him by the police.

Dr. Morgentaler’s eligibility to practice medicine in Alberta is now being considered by the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Deputy registrar Donald Chadsey says he was personally unaware of Dr. Morgentaler’s past medical reprimand in Quebec but doesn’t find it relevant today.

With all but a few Alberta hospitals now refusing to abort pregnancies, Dr.Morgentaler may find his fifth franchise outlet lucrative. In addition to running the chain, he says that he personally terminates about 40 pregnancies per week. Although he normally works in Toronto, on the Alberta fee schedule (which most abortionists complain is too low) he could reasonably expect to start billing the Alberta health plan about $220,000 each year. (It pays $112 for each.) But he also plans to extra-bill his patients to cover clinic costs. In Toronto, for example, his extra fee ranges from $250 to $500, depending on how old the fetus is. If Dr. Morgentaler charged an average $350 facility fee at his proposed Edmonton clinic on top of the $112 flat fee to the government, he or any one of his doctors could quite conceivably haul in a gross revenue of nearly $1 million a year.

This article was first published in Alberta Report, April 1, 1991.