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Dr. Henry Morgentaler was named a member of the Order of Canada on July 1. ((J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press))

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday he supports the decision to award abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler with the Order of Canada.

McGuinty, himself a Catholic, appears to be the first premier to address the issue publicly. His stance opposes that of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has said he would have preferred to have seen the award bestowed on someone who unifies Canadians.

"I know that Dr. Morgentaler's been seen as a controversial figure, but I believe in a woman's right to make a very difficult decision," McGuinty said.

"And if she makes that difficult decision and chooses to have an abortion, I want her to be able to do that in a way that's safe, in a way that's publicly funded. So I know it's divisive, but I think it's important."

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean named Morgentaler as a member of the order on July 1 for his services to women and for leadership in the fields of humanism and civil liberties. The controversial appointment was made on the advice of the independent Order of Canada selection committee.

McGuinty's comments came the same day an Ontario Catholic organization returned an Order of Canada medal to the Governor General to protest the decision to give Morgentaler the honour.

Order 'devalued'

Members of the Madonna House took the medal, along with a letter of explanation, to Rideau Hall, the Governor General's official residence in Ottawa.

The medal had been awarded to the organization's late founder in 1976.

"It is only after much prayer and consultation with our community, as well as with heavy hearts, that we are undertaking this action," Rev. David May, one of the Madonna House directors, said in a news release.

Catherine Doherty, who died at the age of 89 in 1985, was named a member the Order of Canada for "a lifetime of devoted services to the underprivileged of many nationalities, both in Canada and abroad," according to the Governor General's website.

She and her husband started Madonna House in 1947 in Combermere, about 180 kilometres west of Ottawa. The organization now counts 200 members and operates soup kitchens and retreats in seven countries around the world. All involved have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

May said he believes Doherty would support the organization's decision to return her award.

"The order has been devalued in recent days, and we are confident that Catherine is spiritually present with us, affirming this gesture of love for our country and for the values which alone can sustain it. Without absolute respect for the gift of life, no society can survive," he said.

Madonna House's decision to return the award came five days after Rev. Lucien Larré, a B.C. priest, returned his Order of Canada medal to protest Morgentaler's appointment.

Morgentaler fought to legalize abortion

Morgentaler, a Polish Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Montreal after the Second World War, struggled for decades to have abortion legalized in Canada.

He opened his first illegal abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969 and performed thousands of procedures.

A 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.

On Jan. 28, 1988, 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 individual provinces.

With files from the Canadian Press