TORONTO (Reuters) - Henry Morgentaler, the doctor who led the fight to legalize abortion in Canada two decades ago, said on Wednesday he was proud to be receiving his country's highest civilian award, an honor condemned by anti-abortion advocates and hailed by his supporters.
The diminutive 85-year-old said he deserved to receive the Governor General's Order of Canada, a decision announced on Tuesday by Governor General Michaelle Jean, the country's head of state.
"It's a sign of recognition for all the work I've done over the years and the sacrifices I've borne and the unjust sentence of imprisonment that I've suffered 20 years ago," Morgentaler said at a press conference at his Toronto clinic.
Morgentaler, a Holocaust survivor born in Poland, began the fight for abortion rights in Canada when he opened an illegal clinic in Montreal in 1969. He was jailed for 10 months after declaring publicly that he had performed thousands of abortions without going through a strict screening process conducted by a three-doctor committee.
He was eventually acquitted in Quebec, and went on to challenge laws in other provinces, leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that struck down anti-abortion provisions of the Criminal Code as unconstitutional.
"Women no longer die as a result of abortion," he said on Wednesday, "and I'm very proud of that."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who heads the socially conservative right-leaning Conservative party, expressed unhappiness about the award.
"I guess my preference, to be frank, would be to see the Order of Canada be something that really unifies and brings Canadians together," he told a news conference.
The award also raised fierce opposition among religious groups, anti-abortion organizations and members of Canada's Conservative government, which has distanced itself from the decision to honor Morgentaler.
"Canada's highest honor has been debased," Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto said in a statement. "We are all diminished."
Today, Canada is among the countries with the greatest access to abortion in publicly funded hospitals and clinics. Exceptions are the small Maritime provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, where there is limited or no access due to a shortage of qualified doctors and facilities.
Morgentaler, who was praised on the governor general's Web site for "his commitment to increased health-care options for women," is one of 75 people who will receive the prestigious award at a later date.
Appointments are made on the recommendations of an independent council chaired by the chief justice of Canada.
While an Angus Reid poll last month showed half of Canadians believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances, opponents say they speak for the majority of Canadians.
"It is hard to believe that the Queen's representative and our government can ignore the beliefs of the majority of Canadians by bestowing what was such a prestigious honor on a man who has spent his life denying the most fundamental human right, the right to life for all human beings," said Joanne Byfield, president of LifeCanada, an advocacy group.
But Morgentaler has his ardent supporters, too. Judy Rebick, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto and the former head of one of Canada's largest feminist organizations, told Reuters that the decision is a remarkable statement of democracy in Canada.
"I don't think it's unrelated that 50 percent of the committee is women and that the chief justice is a woman and the governor general is a woman," Rebick said. "It reflects in Canada the extent to which women have achieved positions of power."
(Editing by Frank McGurty)
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