Abortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler dies at 90

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who led the abortion movement in Canada, has died at age 90, more than four decades after breaking the law at the time and opening the country's first abortion clinic in Montreal.

Montreal doctor, seen as hero by some and murderer by others, dies of heart attack

Morgentaler's legacy

11 years ago
Duration 3:58
Featured VideoAbortion rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler has died at age 90

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who led the abortion movement in Canada, has died at age 90, more than four decades after breaking the law at the time and opening the country's first abortion clinic in Montreal.

Carolyn Egan, with the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics, said she spoke with members of Morgentaler's family, who told her he died early Wednesday morning, surrounded by family, and that it was a peaceful death at his Toronto home.

Morgentaler emerged in 1969 as one of Canada's most controversial figures when he broke the law at the time, and opened the country's first abortion clinic in Montreal.

Over the next two decades, he would be heralded as a hero by some, and called a murderer by others as he fought to change Canada's abortion laws.


1923 — Henry Morgentaler born in Lodz, Poland.

1950 — Moves to Canada after surviving Holocaust.

1955 — Starts a family practice in Montreal.

1967 — Urges Commons committee to reconsider abortion law.

1969 — Opens Montreal abortion clinic.

1974 — Acquitted on abortion charges by Quebec jury, later overturned by Quebec Court of Appeal. A jury later acquits Morgentaler a second time.

1984 — Acquitted by Ontario jury, along with two other doctors.

1988 — Hails Supreme Court of Canada ruling striking down the abortion law as unconstitutional.

2005 — Receives honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario in London.

2008 — Named to the Order of Canada.

Morgentaler, who was born in Lodz, Poland, and came to Canada after the Second World War, emerged in 1967 as an advocate for the right of women to have abortion on demand — a polarizing issue in Canada. His abortion clinic in Montreal was followed by more clinics across the country.

"His work changed the legal landscape in Canada, and eventually led to the 1988 landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision that gave women the right to obtain abortion care," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.

"Dr. Morgentaler was a legend, a hero, and a national treasure in both our countries, and we will miss him dearly."

Activists expressed outrage

In the late 1960s, Morgentaler dedicated his energies to family planning issues, including abortions.

In 1967, he urged a House of Commons committee to reconsider abortion law, saying any woman should have the right to end her pregnancy without risking death.

At the time, attempting to induce abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment and the woman faced imprisonment of two years.

Anti-abortion activists targeted the clinics, and rallies, protests and legal battles followed until Jan. 28, 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional.

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=4332 size=small]

It was a huge victory for Morgentaler and his supporters. "Finally, we have freedom of reproduction in this country," he said. He called it a victory for women, common sense and justice.

In an interview with The Canadian Press in 2004, Morgentaler said his five-year stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau prepared him for his showdown with Canada's legal system.

A Polish Jew, he survived the Auschwitz death camp (where he was tattooed with No. 95077). Both of his parents, however, died at the hands of the Nazis.

Morgentaler's comments about abortion also sparked controversy, as he pointed many times to what he saw as one of the root causes of Adolf Hitler’s death machine — unwanted children who were fighting back against a family that abused them.

"By fighting for reproductive freedom, and making it possible, I have made a contribution to a safer and more caring society where people have a greater opportunity to realize their full potential," he said in 2005, shortly after receiving his honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Western Ontario in London.

"Well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape and do not murder," he said.

Controversy arose again when he was named to the Order of Canada in July 2008.

Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada said she was "ecstatic" at the honour, adding that Morgentaler is "the epitome of what the Order of Canada is looking for because of his sacrifice and his dedication."

At the same time, the Archbishop of Toronto, Rev. Thomas Collins, referred to Morgentaler's Order of Canada appointment as "tragic." He said Morgentaler has caused "great evil and great suffering, and the destruction of the most defenceless."

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 in the earlier interview.

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

Further legal fights

Years after he won his landmark case, Morgentaler was still involved in legal fights.

In New Brunswick, he had been in a struggle since 2003 to get abortions performed at his private clinic covered by the provincial health-care system. Almost a decade after the case was first filed, it has yet to come before the courts.

A spokesperson for the provincial Department of Justice said the lawsuit is effectively null and void because of Morgentaler's death.

However, legal experts say that is not necessarily so, because an application can be made before the courts to have a person named as a substitute for Morgentaler in order to keep the suit alive. The experts say it happens sometimes in cases that involve the settling of estates after someone dies.

In P.E.I., the only province in Canada where abortions are not performed, Morgentaler fought a legal battle against the provincial government over funding for abortions in the mid-1990s. He originally won his case, but that was overturned on appeal. P.E.I. currently pays for women to have abortions performed in hospitals outside of the province.

 In 2011, a group called the PEI Reproductive Rights Organization started campaigning for better access to abortions on the Island.

With files from The Canadian Press