05/29/2013 02:03 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Morgentaler Dead: Canada Would Be Very Different For Women If Not For Abortion Rights Crusader, Advocate Says

TORONTO - Reaction to the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler shows his life's mission to ensure access to abortions for women across Canada is no less polarizing now than it was when he took up the fight 46 years ago.

The man who forever altered the reproductive landscape in Canada died Wednesday at home in Toronto at the age of 90, surrounded by his family.

Morgentaler opened abortion clinics across the country and fought Canada's abortion law, which ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court's landmark 1988 decision declaring it unconstitutional.

Fellow activists hailed him Wednesday as a hero who brought "reproductive freedom" to all Canadian women. His critics cast his legacy one that was "destructive" to human life.

Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics called him "a man of great courage."

"He served time in prison, he had many financial difficulties because of the political campaign that he took up and he had, of course, many personal threats on his life," said Egan.

"So there is no doubt that he did not think of himself. He was thinking of the needs of Canadian women in all that he did."

Egan remembered a time when it was difficult for most women to access abortion services, particularly women who were new to the country, from the North or were young.

"I think the world would be very, very different for women (without Morgentaler's work)," she said. "I think so many women across the country are very appreciative of that."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Morgentaler's contributions "to a fair society" have been felt worldwide.

"Our country has lost a man of great courage, conviction and personal bravery," she said in a statement.

"Due in large part to his efforts and advocacy, women in Ontario and across Canada have the right to control their reproductive choices. Although the path he chose was not easy, he dedicated himself to ensuring that women had access to safe medical abortions."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, remained silent on the issue. His spokesman said Harper's office would have no comment on Morgentaler's death.

He has previously made it clear his government has no intention of re-opening the abortion debate, taking a stand against a backbench MP's motion to explore the question of when life begins.

Mark Warawa, a Conservative pro-life MP was one of the few members of his party to speak publicly about Morgentaler's death, and said he hoped Morgentaler "made things right with his maker."

But Morgentaler's fellow abortion rights activists believe his legacy will be a positive one.

Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said Morgentaler is a "Canadian hero" who saved countless women's lives.

"I think his legacy will be tremendously powerful and positive — it already is," she said. "He's shown a lot of courage and compassion for women, a lot of respect for women throughout his life."

Arthur predicted that attempts by the anti-abortion movement to "vilify" Morgentaler would continue, even after his death.

Mary Ellen Douglas, national co-ordinator for the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition, said it was impossible to respect the man she called "the face of abortion in Canada" because of "what he continued to do."

"All of these dead babies are in his hands and on his conscience," she said in a phone interview.

For years, the group prayed that Morgentaler would have a change of heart and denounce abortion, and Douglas said she held out hope he repented "before the very end."

"I pray...that this will be an end to the killing in Canada," she said. "I hope it will soon stop and life will be respected."

That hope was echoed by the National Campus Life Network, which represents anti-abortion university and college students across Canada.

"Despite his deep involvement in the injustice of abortion in Canada, there was always hope that he would follow in the footsteps of abortionists like Dr. Bernard Nathanson and repent. It is our sincere hope that he experienced a change of heart," the organization said in a statement.

It also decried what it called Morgentaler's "destructive legacy," saying he was personally responsible for thousands of deaths and indirectly to blame for hundreds of thousands more due to his role in striking down abortion laws.

Paul Klotz of the Toronto Right to Life Association said the organization was sad to hear of Morgentaler's death, but added that their thoughts were also with "the hundreds of thousands of unborn children and their families whose lives were lost to abortion largely because of his activity."

Niki Ashton, the New Democrat's critic on the status of women, called on his supporters to carry on with his work.

"Unfortunately, even today, access to abortion remains unequal and we must remain vigilant against repeated attempts to roll back this right," she said.

"We salute his courage, perseverance and dedication. He gave help to many women, and thanks to his actions, they were free to exercise their fundamental right to choose for themselves."

Morgentaler continued to weigh in on various legal battles on the issue all through his life, said Chris Kaposy, a health-care ethics professor at Memorial University in St. John's.

"He'd been fighting individual provinces constantly to improve abortion access to fund the service in his clinics," he said.

"In terms of social justice it's hard to think of another private citizen who's had such an effect on important social justice initiatives in this country."

Some supporters said they thought Morgentaler's death would likely lead to a renewed debate over abortion in some quarters, though they hoped the discussion would remain civil.

"Our hope is that he will be memorialized respectfully and that even people who disagree with his beliefs or who disagree with women's access to abortion will still recognize the work that he did and the sacrifices he made in his own life," said Julie Lalonde, a board member with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

"He paved the way for us to be able to keep doing it. His clinics are still around, they're still going to be around for years to come."

— with files from Diana Mehta and Paola Loriggio in Toronto and Bruce Cheadle in Ottawa

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