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A look at the life and career of abortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler

05/29/2013 05:10 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - A look at the life and career of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who died Wednesday at the age of 90.

Born: March 19, 1923.

Life in Poland: Born and raised in the Polish city of Lodz, Morgentaler was 16 when Nazi Germany invaded the country. His father — a Jewish labour activist — was executed. His sister died in a German death camp near Warsaw. Morgentaler, his mother and his brother were sent to Auschwitz in 1944 before the family was forcibly separated. The boys were eventually sent to Dachau, where they remained until the Allies liberated the camp. They never saw their mother again. Morgentaler emigrated to Canada in 1950.

Pro-abortion campaign: Morgentaler settled in Quebec and began studying medicine at the University of Montreal. He credited one of his class exercises with crystallizing his views on abortion. He said a 1953 autopsy performed on an 18-year-old woman who bled to death after a self-inflicted abortion had a profound impact on him. By 1955 Morgentaler had opened his own family practice in Montreal, where he became one of the first doctors to offer contraceptive treatments.

Legal troubles: At a 1967 appearance before a federal health and welfare committee, Morgentaler publicly declared that women should have the right to end a pregnancy without risking death. A year later, he opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal. Canada's abortion laws began changing the following year. Starting in 1970 he began contending with police raids on his clinic, a raft of criminal charges and a lengthy and complex court battle. Morgentaler remained defiant through it all, publicly proclaiming his willingness to offer abortions and even performing a procedure on national television. He found himself in a Quebec prison in 1974 while his court case worked its way through the system. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges and released in 1975. He resumed his crusade for the next several years, opening clinics throughout the country that remained illegal until Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country's abortion laws.

Order of Canada: Morgentaler's medical procedures and legal battles earned him both legions of sworn enemies and Canada's highest civilian honour. In 2008, 20 years after his legal triumph, he was once again the subject of public wrath when he was named to the Order of Canada. Previous recipients of the order returned their awards when Morgentaler was granted one, while an Angus-Reid poll released at the time showed 30 per cent of those surveyed opposed the idea of him being recognized for his work.

Quote: "I had decided to break the law in order to help women — a disadvantaged class of people who were being unjustly treated and exposed to terrible danger," he told The Canadian Press in an interview in 2004.

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