Controversial abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler dies at 90
Published Wednesday, May 29, 2013 1:13PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, May 29, 2013 10:57PM EDT
Henry Morgentaler, the Toronto doctor who provoked both anger and praise while fighting to allow Canadian women unfettered access to abortions, has died at the age of 90.
Morgentaler died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Toronto, his family said. A private funeral is planned.
His death comes just a few months after pro-choice advocates marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that he helped to put into motion that struck down Canada’s abortion laws as a violation of women's rights.
Morgentaler was born in Poland and survived the Dachau concentration camp in his childhood before moving to Canada and becoming a physician. He opened a family practice in Montreal in 1955 but closed it in 1968 to open his first abortion clinic.
At the time, abortions were allowed only on limited terms in some hospitals, and only after women had gone before hospital committees for approval.
Morgentaler's Montreal clinic was repeatedly raided after it opened in 1973 and charges were eventually laid against the doctor.
In 1975, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for performing abortions illegally, but served only 10 months.
When the Parti Quebecois came into power in Quebec in 1976, the government decided not to prosecute Morgentaler and other physicians providing abortions in the province. As Morgentaler opened more clinics across Canada, they were met with protests and legal challenges until early 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down abortion laws as unconstitutional.
Morgentaler had played a key role in the historic decision. But abortion opponents continued to attack the doctor and his abortion clinics.
At the opening of a Toronto clinic in 1983, a man lunged at Morgentaler with garden shears. In 1992, the same clinic was firebombed.
Morgentaler was not harmed in those incidents, but he started to wear a bullet-proof vest after several shootings targeting abortion providers in Canada and the United States.
Morgentaler’s clinics were also challenged in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but by 1995, both provinces were forced to allow private abortion clinics.
In 2008, Morgentaler was named to the Order of Canada-- a decision that sparked protests across the country and provoked some other members to return their orders.
Then-Governor General Michaelle Jean said at the time that Morgentaler had been selected for "his commitment to increased health care options for women, his determined efforts to influence Canadian public policy and his leadership in humanist and civil liberties organizations."
Morgentaler proudly accepted the honour, saying that Canada was “one of the few places in the world where freedom of speech and choice prevail in a truly democratic fashion.
"I'm proud to have been given this opportunity coming from a war-torn Europe to realize my potential and my dream -- that is to create a better and more humane society,” he said.
Even in death, Morgentaler remains a polarizing figure.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, called him a "Canadian hero" who saved the lives of countless women.
But a spokesperson for the Campaign Life Coalition told The Canadian Press that Morgentaler’s death marks what she called "an end to the killing in Canada."
With files from The Canadian Press