In “The Singing Abortionist,” a Complicated Hero Emerges

DCAF recently sponsored a screening of “The Singing Abortionist,” shown as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Volunteer Carolyn attended, and shares her thoughts on the film.

I recently joined fellow reproductive rights activists, film buffs, members of the DC Jewish community, and a handful of anti-choice viewers at the Edlavitch DCJCC for a screening of “The Singing Abortionist.” I found myself somewhat unexpectedly paying rapt attention to what was unfolding on screen. Director Dara Bratt and producer Umber Hamid’s thought-provoking portrayal of Canadian abortion provider and Holocaust survivor Dr. Henry Morgentaler is  sympathetic one, but also complex and challenging. It does not glamorize his life, nor does it shy away from examining where and how he fell short.

Because of Dr. Morgentaler’s experience as a victim of grossly unjust laws, he felt compelled to first speak out against abortion restrictions and then, when women began to approach him for help, set up illegal clinics and perform the procedures himself. In doing so, he became a target for radical anti-choice forces. Some of the most jarring segments of the film show just exactly what this meant: a survivor of Auschwitz facing screams of “Nazi!” and “Hitler!” and crude cartoons depicting him with an exaggerated hump nose and large teeth while standing in front of smokestacks billowing dark clouds. The shadow the Holocaust cast over Morgentaler’s life and work is emphasized by filmmakers several times throughout the film.

This pro-choice Christian of Jewish ancestry was both disturbed and challenged by the inclusion of these photos and clips — it reminded me of when a protester raised his arm in a Nazi salute in the direction of my clinic escorting partner (an older Israeli man) and myself. While the filmmakers do not delve into the historical and institutional Christian church’s involvement with anti-choice harassment and perpetration of anti-Semitism, being confronted with such stark imagery soon after formally joining a faith community has forced me to examine how Christian anti-Semitism and certain strains of the anti-choice movement may be intertwined.

Examining the Holocaust’s effect on Morgentaler’s work led to a discussion of destiny in the film and during the Q&A following the screening. Morgentaler reflects on how he sees himself as a rebel at heart; because of his profession, the political atmosphere, and the fact that he just happened to make a public statement about Canadian abortion law during this time, he ended up being a leader in the Canadian pro-choice movement.

While it did not occur on the same kind of stage, this caused me to reflect on my own involvement in this cause. The first time I found myself internally identifying as pro-choice, it did not feel revolutionary or bold — it seemed like common sense. Who knew that talking about Roe v. Wade and the passing of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in my fifth-grade class would lead to a decade and a half (so far) of working to make comprehensive reproductive healthcare a reality for all, during a time when it would face so many attacks?

The filmmakers could have easily focused on Morgentaler’s legal activism and medical provision and it would have still been an interesting documentary, albeit less compelling. To their credit, they also examine more challenging aspects of his personality and work. Three of his now-adult children speak frankly about the effects the death threats, clinic vandalism and bombings, and harassment had on them as children — and about how he was  a loving but distant father who frequently left the more challenging parts of parenting to his female partners. His wives and female colleagues discuss how Morgentaler was charming, kind, and genuinely interested in who they were and what they had to say, but would ultimately become distracted by his “devot[ion] to doing things that will get [him] the love of women.” Sometimes this was his work providing abortion care, other times it was another romantic interest.

The decision to not shy away from this part of Morgentaler’s story is a pointed reminder to avoid hero worship. It also draws attention to the emotional labor women do in the context of the abortion rights and reproductive justice movements. Yes, Dr. Morgentaler did valuable, life-saving work at great risk to himself. This is no small thing, and all evidence points to his partners being fully aware of and supportive of this commitment prior to entering a relationship with him. But it does raise a difficult question: Exactly how much sacrifice, heartbreak, and work must women put into supporting a male leader of a movement that is ostensibly about our own liberation?

I don’t often write down notes or reflections after watching a movie, but on my Metro ride home from this screening, I was scribbling my reflections into a notebook. Director Dara Bratt mentioned that she is drawn to examining complex, multi-faceted characters in her work, and this film is no exception. Just like the man it portrays, “The Singing Abortionist” provides a variety of themes and perspectives from which thoughtful viewers can learn about and consider Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s work and legacy.

by volunteer Carolyn B.