After the culmination of months of heated debate, today in Quebec City, Dr. Henry Morgentaler received the Order of Canada. The Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour in the country, recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement and dedication to community.
In a statement released Thursday, Governor General Michaëlle Jean said that Morgentaler has had "a major impact" on Canadian public policy. "A Holocaust survivor, he has not hesitated to put himself at risk in his determined drive to increase health-care options for Canadian women," the statement reads.
"He has been a catalyst for change and important debate, influencing public policy nationwide. He has heightened awareness of women's reproductive health issues among medical professionals and the Canadian public."
After it was announced in July that it would bestow the award on Morgentaler, some past recipients, angry at the decision, gave back their medals in protest. ‘If the majority have decided this is OK and a good thing, the minority has to accept it and understand that not all laws and rights will agree with our own personal beliefs.’ Jean said. Among those who returned their medals were Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, former New Brunswick lieutenant-governor Gilbert Finn and B.C. priest Lucien Larré.
Born in Poland in 1923, Morgentaler and is a Holocaust survivor that lived in the Łódź ghetto until 1944, after which he was detained and sent to Auschwitz. Morgentaler immigrated to Canada from Poland after the Second World War and opened a clinic in Montreal in 1969, where he performed thousands of what were then illegal abortions.
Morgentaler gave up his family practice and began openly performing illegal abortions in his private clinic in 1968. At the time abortion was illegal except for cases in which continuing a pregnancy threatened the life of the pregnant woman. On August 26, 1969, an amendment to the Criminal Code legalized abortion in Canada if performed in a hospital after approval of a Therapeutic Abortion Committee which was a three-doctor hospital abortion committee. Morgentaler's abortions remained illegal under that new law; they became legal in January 1988 as section 251 of the Criminal Code (now known as section 287) was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.
A family physician, Morgentaler argued that access to abortion was a basic human right and that women should not have to risk death in order to end their pregnancies. Morgentaler's clinics were often raided by police, and one in Toronto was firebombed.
Morgentaler was arrested several times and spent months in jail as he fought his case at all court levels in Canada.
"Canada is one of the few places in the world where freedom of speech and choice prevail in a truly democratic fashion," he said, reading from a statement. I'm proud to have been given this opportunity coming from a war-torn Europe to realize my potential and my dream - that is to create a better and more humane society."