Dr. Henry Morgentaler, 90, an abortion rights activist who helped overturn Canada's abortion law 25 years ago, died Wednesday at his Toronto home, according to Carolyn Egan, director and founding member of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics.

The Polish-born Morgentaler emerged in 1967 as an advocate for a woman's right to have an abortion, at a time when attempting to induce one was a crime punishable by life in prison.

Morgentaler later said his five-year stay in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau prepared him for his showdown with Canada's legal system, saying that in his mind, laws can be wrong.

He was born Henryk Morgentaler on March 19, 1923, in Lodz, Poland, to Jewish parents. His father was a textile worker and union organizer who was killed by the Gestapo after the Nazis invaded Poland. Morgentaler stayed in the Lodz ghetto with his mother and siblings; a sister died there. Eventually the others were sent to concentration camps.

His mother was killed at Auschwitz but Morgentaler and his brother were liberated from Dachau in 1945. He enrolled at the University of Marburgh in West Germany before emigrating to Canada in 1950. He earned a medical degree from the University of Montreal in 1953.

Morgentaler opened the first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1970, followed by more clinics across the country, and he fought Canada's abortion law, which ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court's landmark 1988 decision declaring it unconstitutional.

In 2008, Morgentaler received the Order of Canada, the country's highest recognition award.

Morgentaler's work also earned him many opponents, and the national coordinator of the anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition, Mary Ellen Douglas, said she hopes Morgentaler repented before his death and that his death marks what she called "an end to the killing in Canada."

There are no longer crowds of protesters outside the clinics Morgentaler opened.

"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 a 2004 interview. "We've come to a situation where women accept (abortion on demand) as part of their rights."

-- Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports

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