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Henry Morgentaler Dead: Canadian Abortion Champion Dies Of Heart Attack

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Dr. Henry Morgentaler speaks at a press conference this morning at his Toronto abortion clinic, after it was announced he will receive the Order of Canada. Toronto Star/Tony Bock (Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Dr. Henry Morgentaler speaks at a press conference this morning at his Toronto abortion clinic, after it was announced he will receive the Order of Canada. Toronto Star/Tony Bock (Photo by Tony Bock/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Canadian abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler has died of a heart attack at the age of 90.

Carolyn Egan, with the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, says she spoke with members of Morgentaler's family, who told her he died early this morning. She was told he was surrounded by family and it was a peaceful death at his Toronto home.

Morgentaler, who was born in Poland and survived the Holocaust, had fought for abortion rights in Canada since the late 1960s.

He opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal, followed by more clinics across the country amid an outcry and protests by anti-abortion activists.

Story continues under gallery.

PHOTOS, TWITTER REACTS: Henry Morgentaler Dead
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Morgentaler's work made him a target for more violent members of the anti-abortion movement. In 1983, he was attacked by a man with garden shears outside of his clinic. His Toronto clinic was also firebombed in 1983 and again in 1992. The second attack left the clinic so damaged it had to be demolished.

"I'm aware someone might pump a few bullets into me. But that won't deter me because I believe what I do is important. We have a safer, better society as a result. I felt it was my duty. And I've never regretted it," Morgentaler told then Globe columnist Jan Wong in 1998.

Morgentaler also faced a number of legal battles in the 1970s and 1980s including raids on the clinics he set up across Canada.

In 1983, Toronto Police raided Morgentaler's Toronto clinic and sparked a legal battle that would eventually lead all the way to the Supreme Court.

"There was a policewoman and a policeman undercover who had booked an appointment," Dr. Robert Scott, one of the doctors arrested with Morgentaler, recounted in January 2013.

“I was actually doing the procedure when the raid started. They banged on the door and I said, ‘I’m in the middle of a case. They were very nice in the sense they said, ‘Go ahead and finish the case,’” Scott added.

In 1988, a Supreme Court decision struck down Canada's abortion law, ruling that it conflicted with rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2004, Morgentaler said his five-year stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau prepared him for his showdown with Canada's legal system.

Morgentaler lost his parents and his sister in the Holocaust. His brother survived. Morgentaler immigrated to Montreal in 1950 and attended medical school at the Universite de Montreal. His advocacy for abortions and time in the spotlight began in earnest in 1967 when he went before a House of Commons committee as the head of the Humanist Association of Canada.

Dr. Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada in 2008. His award sparked controversy with many Conservatives and anti-abortion advocates saying he did not deserve the honour.

"This is a pretty divisive issue," Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott told the CBC. "I think we can all agree on that, so why would we have the highest honour in the country being issued when there is obviously a strong difference of opinion about it?"

Morgentaler's supporters defended the award. "Dr. Morgentaler has contributed a tremendous amount to Canadian society and the only reason he hasn’t got an Order of Canada until now is because all of the noise that the anti-choice cause," feminist Judy Rebick told the Toronto Star in 2008.

Morgentaler, who sparred with anti-abortion activists for decades, did not mince words about his opponents.

"I have nothing but contempt for people who wish to deny women one of the fundamental rights to control their reproduction," he told the Globe and Mail in a 2010 interview.

Read The Globe and Mail's full obituary here.

More from The Canadian Press:

To his enemies he was a mass murderer, but to many he was the man who shed light on back-street abortions and put women's health and choice on the front pages of newspapers, TV screens and radio airwaves.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who helped overturn Canada's abortion law 25 years ago, died Wednesday at his Toronto home. He was 90.

In 1967 Morgentaler, then a family practitioner, emerged in Quebec as an advocate for the right of Canadian women to have abortion on demand, at a time when attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life in prison.

The issue became a polarizing issue in Canada: On one side the growing women's liberation movement pushed for the right to choose, while the other was made up of those who equated abortion with murder.

In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2004, the pro-choice crusader said his five-year stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau prepared him for his showdown with Canada's legal system.

"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,'' said the slight man from behind a desk surrounded by family photos in his Toronto clinic. He was 81 at the time.

"The fact that it was the law didn't play with me because in my mind laws can be wrong,'' he said remembering his boyhood when simply being a Jew was reason enough to be imprisoned.

Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland and came to Canada after the Second World War. He completed his medical studies at the Universite de Montreal and interned at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

It was there that he happened upon a ward that made him realize the plight of women with unwanted pregnancies. It changed his life as well as the future rights of Canadian women.

"The Royal Victoria Hospital _ and many other Montreal hospitals _ had a whole ward specially designed for women who had bad abortions, and many of these women would die. Many would be injured to the point where they couldn't have any more children.

"It was a terrible situation.''

In 1967, Morgentaler spoke before a government committee considering changes to the abortion law.

He told of the dying and sick women he'd seen and said publicly that it was a woman's choice to terminate a pregnancy.

After his speech, desperate women approached him for abortions, but as it was still an illegal procedure, he turned them away.

It was only after much soul-searching, that Morgentaler _ with the hopes of eventually changing the law _ started performing illegal abortions to women who requested his help.

"I felt, as a humanist and as a doctor, that I had a moral duty to help these women,'' he told The Canadian Press.

In 1969, the federal government amended the law to make abortion legal under restricted conditions: A hospital committee would decide whether the continuation of the pregnancy would endanger the mother's life or health.

Soon Morgentaler opened his first clinic in Montreal.

By 1973, the clinic had been raided several times by police and charges laid. Later that year a Quebec jury acquitted Morgentaler but the Quebec Court of Appeal threw out the verdict. After the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, Morgentaler began serving an 18-month sentence.

Canadians on both sides took action: Those supporting abortion on demand held rallies calling for Morgentaler's release while those who opposed abortion petitioned Ottawa.

Even in jail Morgentaler was defiant; he threw his boxer shorts in the face of a prison guard who told him to strip after being moved to an isolated room. The guard punched and kicked the doctor to the ground.

Morgentaler was released after serving 10 months.

In 1976, the newly elected Parti Quebecois government decided not to proceed with the charges against Morgentaler and doctors providing abortions in Quebec would not be prosecuted.

Morgentaler opened more clinics across the country.

More rallies, protests and legal battles followed until Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional. Morgentaler was one of the key players in the case.

In 1990, the government tried to bring back the criminal control over abortion but the bill was narrowly defeated.

Morgentaler's critics paint a very different picture, far from a benevolent advocate of women's rights.

Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women Canada, is a prolifer and a longtime Morgentaler adversary.

She believes that if abortion is an assertion of women's rights, why aren't more forthcoming about abortions they have had?

"Morgentaler was an opportunist,'' Landolt said in an interview in 2004. "The only thing he could do was abortions and that, with the help of the media, he turned it around to be a great crusade.''

"But he was really out for Morgentaler and money.''

As part of REAL Women and legal counsel for the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition, Landolt's barbs are verbal. But other critics have been more than vocal about their opposition to abortion.

At the opening of Morgentaler's Toronto clinic in 1983, a man lunged at him with garden shears. That and the 1993 bombing of the clinic left Morgentaler shaken but unharmed.

Political commentator and feminist Judy Rebick was walking beside Morgentaler when the man came at the doctor. Without hesitation, Rebick chased the man to his yard nearby.

But she remembers Morgentaler as the hero.

"I think Morgentaler is a hero because he risked his life many times for the struggle. The incident you describe was the one time I risked mine,'' she said in early 2008.

The shootings of other doctors in Canada in the 1990's and the murder of an abortion provider in the United States forced Morgentaler to acknowledge he was a target. He started wearing a bullet-proof vest.

But he soon abandoned the vest, convincing himself he was invulnerable.

"Maybe it's by accident it succeeded,'' he said in 2004. "Because it was possible that some religious fanatic would come up and pump a few bullets.''

Morgentaler's legal battles continued when he opened a clinics in Nova Scotia in 1989 and again in 1994, when he opened a clinic for the women in New Brunswick as these provinces passed legislation prohibiting abortions outside of hospitals. By 1995, provincial and federal rulings forced both provinces to allow private clinics.

Morgentaler closed his Halifax abortion clinic in 2003, 13 years after it opened. He said women were able to get appropriate care at Halifax's Victoria General Hospital, where the procedure would be covered under provincial health insurance at the hospital.

Prolifers saw the closure as a victory.

In 2004, an honorary-degrees committee at Western University agreed to confer the degree on Morgentaler.

Those against the degree circulated a petition to demand the committee's reversal, garnering 12,000 signatures. An anonymous donor withdrew a promise of a $2 million bequest to the university when it announced that Morgentaler was to be honoured.

Morgentaler said that all the fuss over the honour was proof that some people still opposed the rights of women.

In 2008, Morgentaler received the Order of Canada, prompting an immediate backlash from abortion opponents.

Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, asked that he be removed from the order to protest Morgentaler's appointment.

Turcotte's resignation was officially accepted by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean later that year. He was among several abortion opponents who resigned from the order.

The controversy surrounding Morgentaler made him a celebrity as his story yielded countless media profiles and a few television movies.

Morgentaler trained more than 100 doctors to perform abortions and opened 20 clinics across the country.

There are no longer hordes of protesters outside his clinics.

"It's because of the debate people have changed their minds. Now they have the additional knowledge and experience that women no longer die as a result of abortions,'' Morgentaler said in the earlier interview.

"We've come to a situation where women accept (abortion on demand) as part of their rights.''

FILM: Democracy On Trial, 1984, by the National Film Board of Canada:

Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair by Paul Cowan, National Film Board of Canada

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