Henry Morgentaler, one of Canada’s most controversial and celebrated faces and the doctor credited with launching abortion rights in Canada, died on Wednesday, according to several reports.
Morgentaler was 90 years old. It was not immediately clear how he passed away. CBC News reports that Carolyn Egan, a member of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, spoke with Morgentaler’s family, who said he passed away peacefully at his Toronto home.
The doctor is credited with leading Canadian women’s rights movement when he broke the law and opened the country’s first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. His work made him the most notorious name in Canada’s polarizing abortion debate, garnering him both credit and criticism through his extensive career.
Praised by the pro-choice movement and panned by its pro-life opponents, Morgentaler lived his life in the spotlight. He faced charges and saw them cleared. He opened abortion clinics across the country, and watched some of them burned by firebombs. He survived an assassination attempt and celebrated as Canadians laws were finally changed.
According to an online biography, Morgentaler was born in Lodz, Poland in 1923 and moved to Canada after surviving the Holocaust. He began his first family practice in Montreal in 1955 and, 14 years later, opened the doors to the first freestanding clinic to offer abortions in Canada.
His life-long campaign began in 1967, with an appearance in front of a House of Common Health and Welfare Committee investigating illegal abortions. He said, according to the biography that "any woman should have the right to end her pregnancy without risking death."
Following his public appearance, his clinic was inundated by women looking for abortions. At the time, attempting to induce an abortion was punishable with life in prison. He at first refused the requests, but eventually acquiesced.
The next two decades were marked with raids on his practice, charges,acquittals and jail time. He opened abortion clinics in Winnipeg and Toronto. Federal laws slowly began to change and, in 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down anti-abortion laws.
He was named to the Order of Canada in 2008, despite the protestations of his opponents. One year later three members, including Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte resigned from the Order of Canada in protest.
“I am honoured to receive the Order of Canada today,” Morgentaler said, according to an obituary by the Globe and Mail. “Canada is one of the few places in the world where freedom of speech and choice prevail in a truly democratic fashion. I’m proud to have been given this opportunity, coming from a war-torn Europe, to realize my potential and my dream, to create a better and more humane society.”