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(Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
(Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Henry Morgentaler fought a long battle to decriminalize abortion in Canada Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

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Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Henry Morgentaler, long-time abortion activist, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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In Canada, a woman can have an abortion without fear of prosecution or imprisonment - for the simple reason that there is no abortion law. For more than 20 years, that state of affairs has set us apart from the rest of the developed world. Canadian women enjoy the right to safe and legal abortions largely because Henry Morgentaler fought a long battle on their behalf.

For his trouble, the unflappable Dr. Morgentaler stood trial, languished in prison and received numerous death threats. What drove him to take such risks? "The realization that a terrible injustice was being done to women and the conviction that it was necessary to change the situation to provide help for those who needed it," replies the retired physician via email.

Anyone who didn't live through the 1960s and '70s may find it hard to imagine the legal and moral strictures that once dictated abortion policy in this country. Dr. Morgentaler, 87, isn't shy about taking credit for making Canadians realize that back-alley surgeries are hardly the hallmark of a civilized society.

"On the issue of abortion, I see myself as a leader," he says. "The women of Canada, who lobbied relentlessly and supported me not only emotionally but also through campaigns and fundraising for my trials, deserve a lot of credit as well."

Born and raised in Łódź, Poland, Dr. Morgentaler is a survivor who has suffered great injustice himself. After the invading Nazis killed his father, a member of Poland's Jewish socialist party, he was imprisoned at Auschwitz and other concentration camps near the end of the Second World War. Dr. Morgentaler and his wife later immigrated to Montreal, where he earned his medical degree.

"My experience during the Holocaust showed me the depth of depravity that human beings can become involved in," he says. "It made me, more than ever, conscious of the inherent evil that human beings can descend to, and that it is our duty not to ever allow this to happen."

Before he joined the abortion fight, Dr. Morgentaler spent two decades as a general practitioner. Then in the late 1960s, he joined the call to change Canada's existing abortion law and began performing abortions at a private clinic in Montreal. After the Trudeau government loosened the law in 1969 to permit abortions - but only if approved by hospital committees - Dr. Morgentaler remained openly defiant.

Although several juries acquitted him of performing illegal abortions, he spent several months in jail during the mid-'70s. Such pressure failed to deter Dr. Morgentaler - and as he persisted, Canada's abortion rights movement gained strength. In 1988 - reversing a Morgentaler conviction - the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal abortion law as unconstitutional.

"First of all, I can think of all of those women that I have been able to help who were desperate to have an abortion," Dr. Morgentaler says when asked how he changed the lives of others. "The act of civil disobedience demonstrated that a cause of this nature could mobilize so many people to create change overall."

As for his foes in the pro-life camp, he gives them no quarter. "I have nothing but contempt for people who wish to deny women one of the fundamental rights to control their reproduction," says the 2008 Order of Canada recipient.

Dr. Morgentaler, who now owns three private abortion clinics, thinks he has accomplished most of his goals by establishing facilities and training other doctors to continue his life's work. However, he adds, regional disparities are still a problem in Canada when it comes to accessing abortions.

Another challenge facing pro-choice advocates is that most Canadians are ill informed about abortion's legal status in their own country - and many are unhappy with it. In an August poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion, just 21 percent of respondents knew that Canada has no abortion restrictions. Meanwhile, 30 percent wanted to see the abortion debate revisited. But Dr. Morgentaler doesn't sound worried about the future. "[I am]pretty confident that the rights acquired by women in Canada will remain valid and legal," he predicts.

Then there's Ottawa's recent refusal to fund abortions through a G8 maternal health program - a move condemned by aid organizations and women's groups. "I think the right to safe medical abortions should be reaffirmed and safeguarded throughout the world," Dr. Morgentaler says.

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