05/29/2013 05:32 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Henry Morgentaler Receives Prayers For Soul From Pro-Life Group

MONTREAL - A small group prayer for the soul of Dr. Henry Morgentaler was held Wednesday in the place where the physician's national quest for abortion rights began.

An anti-abortion group's president said members held the vigil for Morgentaler, even though they consider him one of the biggest criminals in Canadian history.

The prayer site was a park across the street from the Morgentaler Clinic in Montreal, the city where he launched his practice and his legal battles, which ultimately wound up before the Supreme Court. He died Wednesday in Toronto at the age of 90.

"Respect for the person is primordial in our ethos, so we're going to pray for him, for his soul," Georges Buscemi of the Quebec Life Coalition said Wednesday in an interview.

"We don't fight against people as such, we fight against the ideas that people carry... It's a human being _ we respect human life."

The group said later that a handful of people, somewhere between nine and 12, attended the event Wednesday night.

Also in attendance was a woman expressing the view of many in the province, where the political climate and past public opinion polls point to strong support for abortion rights. The woman came to tell the group that she disagreed with their event and she called Morgentaler a great man.

Morgentaler's original suburban clinic moved to its current downtown site two decades ago. Across the busy boulevard out front, members of the pro-life group stage small, 40-day protests against abortion in the park twice a year.

Buscemi said members also planned to pray for an end to abortion and for more people to realize that the procedure involves taking a life.

He said Morgentaler's crusade "killed" tens of thousands of people across Canada. To group members, the physician is one of the country's biggest criminals.

"Henry Morgentaler is a real person, but so are his victims," Buscemi said.

"His instruments were served to kill, to snuff out human lives."

Morgentaler opened his first abortion clinic in 1968, a move that within a couple of years had led to police raids, numerous criminal charges and a lengthy, complicated court battle.

His legal problems landed him in a Quebec prison in 1974 while his court case worked its way through the system. He was later acquitted of all charges and released in 1975.

In 1994, Morgentaler's clinic moved to its current location, on the seventh floor of a building close to the city centre.

A physician, who works at the clinic, credited Morgentaler's early battles for helping ensure the availability of safe, free abortions in the city and beyond.

"He changed mindsets not only in Montreal, but everywhere in Canada and even in the whole world," Dr. Francine Leger said.

But hurdles still exist, said France Desilets, director of the Montreal Morgentaler Clinic. She said they start with the regular demonstrations across the street from the clinic.

Patients, Desilets said, still have to contend with the handful of pro-life protesters who demonstrate there for 40-day stretches, twice a year.

Clients sometimes tell her they feel uneasy entering the building under the gaze of the placard-toting demonstrators.

Other Montrealers shared fond memories of Morgentaler on Wednesday.

His former stepson is a well-known Quebec singer and actor. Dan Bigras reminisced in a radio interview about the three years that the abortion-rights crusader was his mother's partner.

He said Morgentaler had a heart attack in jail, where he was initially given a rough ride by the guards.

He was eventually moved to serve out his sentence at an old-folks home because politicians were afraid of having him die and become a martyr, Bigras said.

"He didn't worry too much about prison," the singer told 98.5 FM in Montreal.

"He'd been in Nazi death camps. He escaped with his brother during a bombing. So, if he managed to keep his head in a concentration camp and escape despite the automatic death sentence that would have meant, I don't think a prison sentence here would have scared him too much."

Bigras said he learned some life lessons watching how Morgentaler fought his battles with stoicism, never wallowing in sorrow because he was confident in his cause.

He also recalled a lighter side to Morgentaler.

He said he was a master chess player who taught him the game.

"Did you know he was the former Polish chess champion?" Bigras told the station.

"I just recently dusted off a friend of mine with three moves — it's a silly little trick, and Henry taught me that."

- with files from Fanny Arnaud

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