Egotistical, stubborn, hungry for attention. I've been reading all about it as the media dissect the complex and larger-than-life personality of Holocaust survivor Henry Morgentaler, who changed everything about women's access to abortion in Canada and who died on May 29.
But as the obits stream in, few are talking about his physician's heart. Though he could serve up pro-choice arguments with the best of them, he did not operate from a theoretical framework or even a passion for human rights. His decision to step in to help his patients emerged from his experience listening to women who were profoundly distressed because of their unwanted pregnancies.
Those of us who admired his political dedication to reproductive freedom, his campaign acumen and his astounding ability to stay on message often missed this.
Henry Morgentaler was first and foremost a brilliant and compassionate doctor.
In 1968, after hearing the desperate pleas of his patients, he set up a free-standing abortion clinic in Montreal - which was illegal in Canada as long as he sidestepped the required Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC) consisting of three doctors who could say yes or no to the procedure. It was the first of 20 clinics he established across the country.
Maria Corsillo, who administers the Scott Clinic here in Toronto, remembers the situation in Montreal when Morgentaler made his decision to perform abortions.
"I was a seven-year-old immigrant and I used to go with women to the doctor and translate for them. ‘Tell him I can't have another,' they'd say to me, and the doctor would always respond, ‘There's nothing I can do.'"
Witnessing this kind of suffering changed Morgentaler, she says.
"He felt it was his role as a physician to respond."
A few years later, he published an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal declaring that he had performed over 5,000 illegal procedures to terminate pregnancies.
At first glance it's the sheer nerve of such a declaration that stands out. But underlying that is the extent to which that number shows how poorly the TAC model was working.
To meet the TACs' criteria, women had to explain how their pregnancies were endangering their health. The level of proof required varied from hospital to hospital, some committees granting an abortion if a woman had some psychological disturbance or thoughts of suicide, some not.
If a hospitals had a TAC in the first place, that is. Many did not.
But dig deeper still into the Journal article and you recognize a highly skilled practitioner. He was always stretching himself to find the newest techniques for the procedure and was one of the first to introduce the safe, relatively quick outpatient vacuum aspiration method to Canada.
Previously, women could terminate their pregnancies only via an invasive, in-hospital D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure requiring a general anaesthetic.
"He made sure he used the most up-to-date techniques and in the [CMAJ] article described exactly how he used them," says Gary Romalis, a physician who performs abortions in Vancouver. "And he had an extremely low complication rate."
Romalis met Morgentaler after Romalis was shot by an anti-choice extremist in 1994. He was skeptical about him before that.
"I knew him as a media hound and a huge ego," he says. "But I realized that the reason why he was a media hound was because it suited his purpose - which was to help women.
"The more I was with him, the more I realized how genuine he was. The rest are just side issues."
Claude Paquin, a doctor at the Clinique Médicale Fémina in Montreal, trained with Morgentaler in the early 80s. Morgentaler performed abortions while trainees looked on, and then he watched while the younger doctors tried their hand.
Yes, Paquin says, Morgentaler had tremendous technical skills.
"He had so much experience that he could tell the moment you picked up an instrument what to correct. And he was always patient."
But it's the human side of his care that meant the most to Paquin.
"That's the most important thing I learned from him. He came into the operating room and the first thing he did was take the hand of the patient. He always looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘We're here to help you.'"
"He actually sang to his patients," says Sheri Krieger, director of counselling at the Morgentaler Clinic in Toronto. "And he was a polyglot, so he could sing in just about any language the patient spoke."
"The main thing is compassion," says Paquin, "and you have to have it inside you. Not every doctor does. Some are very cold, but Henry was warm."
Says Romalis, "He brought the issue out into the open. He knew it was the right thing to do and that the law had to be changed. I didn't do the procedure when it was illegal.
"I wasn't that courageous."
Trials of a pro-choice champion
1944 At 21, he's deported from the Lodz ghetto with his mother and brother, to Auschwitz and later to Dachau.
1953 Completes medical studies in Montreal.
1969 Sets up a free-standing abortion clinic in Montreal after a Criminal Code amendment allows abortion only if the mother is endangered and the procedure has been sanctioned by a three-person Therapeutic Abortion Committee.
1970 Montreal police raid the clinic.
1973 First trial. He argues the "defence of necessity" - that his duty to protect the lives of women overrides his duty to obey the law. The jury acquits him.
1974 Quebec's Court of Appeal overturns the jury verdict. He appeals to the Supreme Court.
1975 The Supreme Court upholds the Quebec Court. He's sentenced to 18 months (he serves 10), has a heart attack in jail and is tried on a second charge. The jury acquits.
1976 The Parti Québécois is elected and drops all charges.
1983 Opens clinic in Toronto and is arrested with two other doctors.
1984 Jury acquits them, but the Ontario Court of Appeal reverses the decision. He appeals to the Supreme Court.
1986 New charges are laid against him and two other doctors, but the attorney general stays the charges awaiting the Supreme Court decision.
1988 The Supreme Court strikes down the abortion law as unconstitutional. Chief Justice Brian Dickson writes, "Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus a violation of her security of the person."
1992 His Toronto clinic is firebombed. He continues his work at alternative locations.
2008 Named to the Order of Canada
2013 Morgentaler dies, but the clinic he founded continues to operate at 727 Hillsdale East.