Cardinal Turcotte gives back Order of Canada

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte is renouncing his Order of Canada to protest Dr. Henry Morgentaler's appointment to the prestigious membership.

Montreal's archbishop is renouncing his Order of Canada to protest Dr. Henry Morgentaler's appointment to the prestigious membership.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte says he's renouncing his Order of Canada to protest Dr. Henry Morgentaler's appointment to the order. ((Getty Images/ Peter Macdiarmid))

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, 72, told the CBC's French-language service on Thursday that his decision was a question of personal conviction.

"I'm worried about how we treat life, from conception to death, " he told RDI. "I decided to take a stance that clearly reflects my convictions."  

Turcotte, who has worked extensively with the poor while fulfilling his religious duties, was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996 by former governor general Roméo Leblanc.

Officers, who are ranked higher than members but lower than companions, are praised for having made a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large. Turcotte was personally cited on the Order of Canada website for having "compassion and openness" that makes him "an example to all Canadians."

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean named Morgentaler, who fought to legalize abortion in Canada, 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.

Others have given back their medals

Since Morgentaler's appointment, protests have been staged and several Order of Canada recipients have returned their medals, including former New Brunswick lieutenant-governor Gilbert Finn, B.C. priest Lucien Larré, and members of the charitable group the Madonna House, who returned the medal of their deceased founder, Catherine Doherty.

Turcotte, who was on holidays when Jean announced Morgentaler's appointment, said he had hoped that in light of all the protests that the Order of Canada committee would have reversed its decision. Because Morgentaler's appointment still stands, Turcotte said he felt obliged to give back his medal.

"It's rare that the Order of Canada is given to someone who is controversial," he said.

Turcotte himself was at the centre of controversy in early 2004 when he required candidates for the priesthood at a Montreal seminary to undergo HIV tests. He later rescinded the order, saying it was not meant to keep gays out of the priesthood.

Morgentaler opened first abortion clinic in 1969

Morgentaler, 85, is a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Montreal after the war and opened an abortion clinic in 1969, where he performed thousands of what were then illegal abortion procedures.

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.

In January 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada's abortion law, which required women who wanted an abortion to appeal to a three-doctor hospital abortion committee.

With files from the Canadian Press