Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the abortion rights activist who died May 29 at age 90, will be remembered by many as a Canadian hero.
Born in Lodz, Poland, he was a Holocaust survivor who was in Auschwitz for five years. Both his parents died in the war. He later moved to Canada and became a physican.
He opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1970, followed by more clinics across the country.
The Montreal clinic was repeatedly raided, and charges were eventually laid against him. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail for performing abortions illegally and served 10 months.
At the opening of his Toronto clinic in 1983, he was lunged at by a person wielding garden shears, and in 1992, the clinic was firebombed. He was unharmed in both incidents.
Morgentaler fought Canada’s abortion law, which ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1988 decision declaring it unconstitutional.
He claimed after his victory that his stay at Auschwitz prepared him for his showdown with Canada’s legal system, saying that in his mind, laws can be wrong.
He was named to the Order of Canada in 2008, a decision that sparked protests across the country and provoked some people to resign their membership in the Order.
Then Gov.-Gen. 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 said he was proud of the honour.
“Canada is one of the few places in the world where freedom of speech and choice prevail in a truly democratic society,” he said.
“I’m proud to have been given this opportunity coming from a war-torn Europe to realize my potential and my dream, and to create a better and more humane society.”
He often sparked controversy with his comments about abortion, such as his oft-repeated opinion that he considered unwanted children to be one of the root causes of Hitler’s violence.
“By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential,” he said after receiving an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Western Ontario in 2005.
“Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder.”
Judy Rebick, a feminist writer and activist and personal friend of Morgentaler, called him a “real Canadian hero. He fought so long against injustice, and he became a symbol of what an individual can accomplish. He had courage and tenacity.”
For women, Rebick said, “his struggle means that we don’t have to worry about reproductive freedom. Abortion is the last resort, but it must be there.”
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, spiritual leader of Toronto’s City Shul, said that Morgenthaler “gave women their freedom back at a difficult time, when the state wanted control over our bodies.
“He took tremendous personal risks for that. Though he was clearly and philosophically non-religious, he worked out of a deep sense of Jewish values and Jewish ideals."
Alan Libman, a prominent criminal defence lawyer in Winnipeg, also called Morgentaler a hero. “He put the needs of his patients ahead of his own. He was jailed for ensuring the physical well-being of Canadian women.”