Abortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler said Wednesday he's "genuinely honoured" to receive the Order of Canada, an award that has generated controversy and caused Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government to distance itself from the decision.
Speaking at a news conference at his Toronto abortion clinic, Morgentaler said he was proud to be named to the prestigious order.
"It's an appointment I deserve, even if I say so myself," Morgentaler said to laughter from his supporters and journalists.
"Canada has set an example," the 85-year-old said, adding he hopes other governments and countries will take notice of how the nation deals with abortion rights.
'Congratulations, Dr. Morgentaler! This award honours a true and brave Canadian.'
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"Now, in this country ... abortion has become one of the safest surgical techniques," he said. "The safety and health of women has been preserved and I'm very proud of that."
Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean named Morgentaler to the Order of Canada Tuesday for his services to women and for leadership in the fields of humanism and civil liberties.
The Harper government said it had nothing to do with the appointment, which was announced by the Governor General’s office on the advice of a high-powered committee.
"The Conservative government is not involved in either deliberations or decisions with respect to which individuals are appointed to the Order of Canada," said a statement issued Tuesday evening by Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Harper.
"Rideau Hall makes these appointments based on the recommendations of the Advisory Council for the Order which is chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada," the statement continued.
Decision is 'controversial': Tory MP
Other members of the advisory committee include the Clerk of the Privy Council and the deputy minister of Canadian Heritage.
Anti-abortion Conservative MPs have deplored the appointment, while women’s rights activists have said it was overdue.
Edmonton Tory MP Ken Epp, who has a private member's bill before the House of Commons that would allow criminal charges to laid if a fetus dies or is injured in an attack on a pregnant woman, said Morgantaler’s supporters have gone too far.
"As far as I’m concerned, it is indeed controversial," Epp told the Toronto Star.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, said the country’s highest honour had been "debased."
In a statement, Collins invoked the names of Frederick Banting and Charles Best, who co-discovered insulin in 1921, and are both celebrated as medical heroes in this country.
"Now it honours with the Order of Canada a medical man who has brought, not healing but the destruction of the defenceless and immeasurable grief," Collins said.
Respect, celebrate decision: Dion
Liberal leader Stéphane Dion said the award should be respected and celebrated.
"Dr Morgentaler has stood up for a woman’s right to choose for his entire career, often at great personal risk," said a statement issued by Dion’s office.
Feminist and author Judy Rebick said on Monday that it is about time Morgentaler is honoured for his long battle for abortion rights for women.
"Dr. Morgentaler is a hero to millions of women in the country," she said. "He risked his life to struggle for women's rights … He's a huge figure in Canadian history and the fact that he hasn't got [the Order of Canada] until now is a scandal."
Morgentaler, a Polish Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Montreal after the war, opened his first abortion clinic in 1969 and performed thousands of procedures, which were illegal at the time.
1988 court decision vindicates him
A trained family physician, Morgentaler argued that access to abortion was a basic human right and women should not have to risk death at the hands of an untrained professional in order to end their pregnancies.
His abortion clinics were constantly raided, 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.
His victory came on Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law. That law, which required a woman who wanted an abortion to appeal to a three-doctor hospital abortion committee, was declared unconstitutional.
Canada now has no federal laws governing abortion, and leaves regulation of the procedure up to the provinces.