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Abortion-rights fighter divided nation

Doctor's crusade polarized views, overturned law, changed history

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OTTAWA -- To his enemies he was a mass murderer, but to many he was the crusader for women's rights in his fight to have abortion legalized.

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

"He will be missed by many of us," said Dr. Suzanne Newman, who got her start in medicine as a volunteer at Morgentaler's Winnipeg clinic. "He (fought) for a fundamental human right."

A Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Morgentaler came to Canada in 1950 and trained as a family physician.

In 1967, he told a parliamentary committee a woman should have a right to a safe abortion. This was at a time when attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life in prison.

In 1969, he gave up his family practice and began performing abortions, leading to numerous raids, criminal charges and court cases.

He spent 10 months in jail in 1975 but was ultimately acquitted.

He went on to open clinics in most provinces, including one in Winnipeg in 1983. He battled with authorities every step of the way, getting arrested repeatedly, including in Winnipeg within a few months of his clinic opening.

Winnipeg lawyer Greg Brodsky, who represented Morgentaler for years, said the doctor "knew what he wanted to do and he did it."

"He was a client who took difficult positions. You couldn't say to him it's against the law because his response was, and he was right in the end, 'No it's not, the law is wrong.' "

Morgentaler's actions led to a 1988 Supreme Court decision overturning the Criminal Code ban on abortion. His court battles with the Manitoba government and others continued, however, as once the law was changed, Morgentaler took on provincial governments that wouldn't fund abortions in his clinics.

In Manitoba, the fight began in 1992 and lasted until 2004, when the provincial government began funding abortions at Jane's Clinic, a non-profit entity that purchased Morgentaler's clinic. That decision came months before a provincial judge ruled the province had to fund abortions at private clinics.

His relationship with the provincial government was antagonistic.

Newman said when Morgentaler opened his clinic in Winnipeg in 1983, he did so because he thought the pro-choice NDP government of Howard Pawley would be supportive. He was wrong.

In 2002, negotiations with the provincial government to buy the Morgentaler clinic fell apart when then-health minister Dave Chomiak said Morgentaler was "too difficult" to negotiate with.

"He was a man of huge courage," said Newman. "He fought on at a huge personal cost."

But Newman said no matter how many protesters spat at him, heckled him, or even came at him "with garden shears," she never heard him speak an angry word about them.

Jim Hughes, president of the Campaign Life Coalition, disagreed with Morgentaler but said the doctor was respectful.

"Any conversation I had with him was very pleasant," said Hughes.

However, Hughes said Morgentaler's legacy will not be positive.

"Future history will judge what he's done to Canada and its future very harshly," he said.

Jessica Shaw said Morgentaler's death will be a catalyst for more people to work on pro-choice campaigns.

Shaw used to be part of the Abortion Advocacy Team at the Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg and is now on the board of directors of Canadians for Choice. "I think you'll see a surge of support," she said.

In 2008, Morgentaler received the Order of Canada, prompting a 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 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.

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

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 30, 2013 A4

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