OTTAWA — Canadian Catholics were leading a growing backlash last week to a Canada Day honor. Their federal government awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to Canada’s most notorious abortionist on July 1.

Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto said that the award should be revoked.

There is no American figure quite parallel to Henry Morgentaler, an abortionist at the very center of the decision to legalize abortion in Canada. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s abortion law in 1988 in a decision involving Morgentaler, thereby removing all regulations limiting the procedure. About 100,000 abortions are now performed in the country annually.

The decision to name the controversial 85-year-old abortionist to the Order of Canada, a body that recognizes outstanding lifetime achievement “in various fields of human endeavor,” is especially contentious given Morgentaler’s record of lawbreaking and professional misconduct.

Indeed, under Order rules, his infractions, if committed after his appointment, would be serious enough to trigger consideration of termination of his membership in the Order.

Officially, Morgentaler was named to the Order because of “his commitment to increased health-care options for women, his determined efforts to influence Canadian public policy and his leadership in humanist and civil liberties organizations.”

This description fails to note that, for two decades starting in the late 1960s (when abortions could be performed only in hospitals and only when a panel of doctors deemed the mother’s health to be in jeopardy), Morgentaler openly defied the Criminal Code of Canada by running a private abortion business.

It was also revealed earlier this year that, in 1973, Morgentaler wrote a letter to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in which he revealed that “wives, daughters, mistresses and relatives” of members of the federal and Quebec cabinets made use of his Montreal facilities. He then named some of the officials.

Observers have criticized the letter for its hint of blackmail and for an apparent breach of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Archbishop Collins characterized the appointment of Morgentaler to the Order of Canada as “dishonorable” and declared, “It must be revoked.”

Catholic activist Joanne Byfield, president of LifeCanada, said of the appointment, “There is a sort of desperation to this attempt to sanctify Canada’s deplorable situation on abortion.”

Morgentaler was never convicted of a crime by a jury for openly performing illegal abortions, but his 1973 acquittal by a Quebec jury was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal and he subsequently served 10 months in jail. Another case involving his abortion activities led to the 1988 high-court ruling that overturned Canada’s abortion law.

And in 1976, the Disciplinary Committee of the Professional Corporation of Physicians of Quebec suspended his license to practice medicine for one year on the grounds he failed to practice good medicine.

Furthermore, in February 1998, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court found his Halifax, Nova Scotia, business to be negligent in failing to providing adequate post-abortion care to a patient.

Under rules governing the Order, the body’s advisory council “shall consider termination of a person’s appointment” if that person “has been subject to official sanction, such as a fine or reprimand, by an adjudicating body, professional association or other organization.”

Catholic lawyer Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of Real Women Canada, is not surprised the advisory council overlooked Morgentaler’s record.

“The Order of Canada has no honor,” Landolt said. “It’s simply a political tool of the left.”

Catholic activist Stephanie Gray, executive director of the Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, agreed that Morgentaler’s appointment is consistent with what’s going on in Canada.

“The problem to which our limited attention should be drawn is not awarding Henry Morgentaler the Order of Canada,” she says. “The problem is the genocide of a group of people who are being denied their right to life simply because of their age.”

Morgentaler believes the embryo has no moral claim.

“I think it’s not yet a human being,” he said in a 1985 interview. “Only a human being has a moral claim, a legal claim or anything else.”

Canada’s National Abortion Federation cheered Morgentaler’s inclusion in the Order.

“Canadians owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for standing up for women’s lives and health at great personal sacrifice and risk,” Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the federation, said in a press release.

It is clear, however, that Canadians are deeply divided over both Morgentaler’s legacy and the federal government’s decision to honor him. One leading newspaper, the National Post, called the appointment “a mistake.”

In contrast, another national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, headlined its supportive editorial, “A courageous honor for courage.”

Given those divisions, Morgentaler’s appointment sullies the reputation of the Order of Canada, said historian Michael Bliss, who was named a Member of the Order in 1998.

“I don’t believe that Mr. Morgentaler’s career exemplifies the values that we associate with the Order of Canada,” Bliss said. “The Morgentaler appointment is so divisive that it effectively becomes a political appointment.”

Bliss said he has taken private action in official circles to protest the appointment, but would not provide details.

Father Lucien Larre, a Catholic priest who lives in the Vancouver suburb of Coquitlam, said July 2 he was returning his Order of Canada because of Morgentaler’s appointment, the National Post reported.

Father Larre, who was appointed to the order in 1983 for his work with troubled youth, said in a statement he felt “compelled in conscience to return my Order of Canada.”

Said Father Larre about Morgentaler, “I believe in my heart that he is horribly wrong and the advisory committee made a terrible mistake.”

Under existing rules, the country’s governor general (a largely ceremonial role currently held by broadcaster Michaelle Jean) names members to the Order upon the advice of an independent council comprising two members appointed by the federal government and nine high-ranking Canadians such as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the president of the Royal Society of Canada.

The Register has been told by a government source, who asked not to be identified, that the two appointees voted against Morgentaler’s inclusion.

Conservative Member of Parliament Jason Kenney, the federal secretary of state for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, believes the process that led to Morgentaler’s award was “unusual, possibly unprecedented.”

Said Kenney, who is Catholic, “There seem to be a number of undenied reports that the normal consensus rule was not observed here, and that there was a division on the council. If that’s the case, it’s peculiar and very unfortunate and speaks to the divisiveness of this appointment, which in my judgment has done a disservice to the order.”

Nevertheless, given the autonomous nature of the Order of Canada, Kenney said the Conservative government is powerless to intervene.

An organization speaking on behalf of Canadian bishops has called for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to overturn the honor.

“Canada has its heroes, and they deserve to be recognized,” the Catholic Organization for Life and Family, which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus, said in a press release.

“However, it is neither heroic nor admirable to cause the death of unborn children, the most vulnerable of all Canadians,” the Catholic organization said. “COLF therefore urges the Harper Government to take the necessary action to ensure that the decision to award the Order of Canada to Dr. Morgentaler be revoked.”

Terry O’Neill writes from

Coquitlam, British Columbia.