Bad Ass Women’s Activist of the Week: 20 Years of Legal Abortion in Canada Edition

by Cara on January 28, 2008

in abortion, anti-choice extremism, bad ass women’s activist of the week, International, legislation, reproductive justice, social conservatives, women’s health

Today is the 20th anniversary of the R. vs. Morgentaler decision that legalized abortion in Canada — more or less, a Canadian version of Roe. Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the doctor whose arrest for performing abortions illegally was the basis of the case, is quite the hero to all who believe in medical privacy and the right of women to control their reproductive capacity:

The Polish-born physician, a survivor of the infamous Dachau concentration camp, quit his family practice in Montreal in 1968 to open his first abortion clinic in defiance of the laws of the day.

He was moved, he has often said, by the suffering of women at the hands of backstreet quacks whose amateur abortions left them in pain at best or dead at worst.

Morgentaler soon found himself before the courts, where he was acquitted by a jury that accepted his defence of medical necessity for the abortions he performed. But the verdict was overturned on appeal and he went to jail.

It took three more trials and three more acquittals – two in Quebec, one in Ontario – before he carried the day at the Supreme Court.

Looking back, in semi-retirement and two months short of his 84th birthday, Morgentaler is philosophical about the personal toll.

“I had to accept the fact that a certain amount of sacrifice was required of me,” he says. “I have no regrets.

“Women in Canada now have access to good abortions done by doctors in clinics or hospitals where their life is not in danger.”

We in America, often seen as the home of bitter contention over abortion, had things relatively easy. Amazingly enough, we managed to secure abortion rights fifteen years earlier and with far less personal sacrifice asked of any one individual (“Roe” never did receive her abortion; since converting to Christianity she has claimed that she never really wanted one and has unsuccessfully tried to overturn the decision on this basis).

Unfortunately, though Canadians gained the right to abortion in a later and more liberal time, they still face many of the same problems as we do in America. Women and doctors are still up against anti-choice zealotry (do a google news search on today’s anniversary; count the number of pro-choice, anti-choice and neutral articles that come up and you’ll see what I mean). And critically, as in the U.S., there is the question of access:

It’s estimated there are currently about 100,000 abortions a year across Canada. But surveys indicate that fewer than 20 per cent of hospitals actually perform the procedure, and there are only 22 private clinics, mostly in major cities.

There are no clinics in Prince Edward Island or Saskatchewan and only one in New Brunswick, where the provincial government won’t pay for abortions under medicare unless they’re done in full-service hospitals.

Morgentaler is challenging the New Brunswick policy in court and expects to win eventually – as others did when they challenged similar funding rules in Manitoba and Quebec.

But pro-choice forces complain that no federal government has ever levied financial penalties under the Canada Health Act against provinces that restrict medicare funding of abortion.

The current Tory regime is even less likely to take action, says Judy Rebick, a former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

She fears the situation could even get worse if the Conservatives manage to strengthen their hold on power at the federal level.

“If Harper gets a majority then the provinces that don’t want to be funding abortions, and the hospitals that don’t want to do it, will feel freer not to do it.”

Just like here, many if not most women would have difficultly obtaining an abortion easily and close to home; those who can are likely to reside in cities. It is worth noting, however, that Canada is apparently the only Western country that has no federal laws restricting abortion — that’s right, none. That includes abortions after 20 weeks, the most contested and likely to be restricted elsewhere, and amazingly enough they are still only performed for extreme fetal deformity that would result in death or stillbirth or for the health of the woman. Who would’ve thought that if legal, women wouldn’t rush out in large numbers to have abortions at 32 weeks, possibly going in groups, tacking on a manicure and making a day trip out of it? Also not so shocking, though, anti-choice Canadian groups still try to use late-term abortions as wedge issue and pass legislation that would act as a catalyst for further restrictions.

And as noted above, restrictions imposed by local/provincial laws are indeed already an issue. Dr. Morgentaler has apparently taken on this cause as well. It’s also worth a strong mention that Canada has America definitively beat in the area of public funding for abortion; most Canadian abortions are covered by medicare (as is virtually all other health care). For this, Dr. Morgentaler can also be thanked, and should be. Like I said: he’s quite an amazing man, doctor and activist.

Happy reproductive freedom day, Canada! I’m clearly far from an expert on Canadian reproductive justice, abortion law or the Morgentaler decision. If you have additional articles or blog posts that you have written or think would be useful or important to read, leave them in the comments.


1 Ran January 28, 2008 at 10:59 pm

It is worth noting, however, that Canada is apparently the only Western country that has no federal laws restricting abortion — that’s right, none. That includes abortions after 20 weeks, the most contested and likely to be restricted elsewhere, and amazingly enough they are still only performed for extreme fetal deformity that would result in death or stillbirth or for the health of the woman.

That’s good to know. I mean, it’s kind of obvious, but it’s reassuring anyway.

2 merp January 29, 2008 at 7:49 am

Wait, what? Roe didn’t have her abortion? Huh… what happened there?… guess I can go find out for myself sometime… anyway, that’s something to think about this early in the AM.

Yeah, I live in one of the mentioned provinces w/out a clinic. I’m not sure, but I’m assuming a person could get an abortion at a hospital, though, and it’s not horridly impossible to get to one of those. The lack of women’s centres (clinics, I suppose they’re called) where I’m from is a f-ing shame, since there is certainly a need. Oh, Canada.

3 Cara January 29, 2008 at 8:29 am

No, Merp, she didn’t. There’s no way that you could get a case to the Supreme Court that quickly. In fact, the district attorney tried to get the Court to throw out the case on the basis that it was no longer relevant because Roe had already given birth. Thank god, the Court was smart enough to realize that if that was the standard, they would never have an opportunity to look at the case and dismissed the motion. I think that they allowed it to be refiled on behalf of all women in the jurisdiction of the specific law in question. I can’t image that they would be so rational and fair today.

4 Ran January 29, 2008 at 9:04 pm

The legal concepts of “mootness” and “liveness” — the Court will only take a case if it’s become relevant and still is — are well established. However, an exception is made in the case that the same putative right may be re-putatively-violated with the same parties, in which case the previous putative violation is deemed to satisfy mootness, and the possibility of repetition is deemed to satisfy liveness. The with the same parties part is an interesting one — in WWII there was a case the Court refused to hear, of a suspected spy executed without a fair trial, because the guy was already dead so there was nothing they could do about it — so they didn’t address the question of whether the Government could do it again.

(That said, I don’t know about Roe specifically.)

5 patrick January 31, 2008 at 2:53 am

I think that it is a salient point to note that though Harper and this incarnation of the Tories (I miss the PROGRESSIVE Conservatives, they may have been jerks but least they weren’t wannabe Texas fundie loons) haven’t looked to repeal or roll back the R v. Morgentaler by means of new legislation. Of course that issue could come up if Harper gains a majority. Hopefully the desire to maintain or gain seats in Quebec will mute that possibility as secularism and social liberalism now appear to be what Quebecers/Quebecois consider to be their foundational values (see the reasonable accommodation debates of the past year).
Canada has a long way to go in realizing sex and gender equality but the Morgentaler decision was a key one for our future.
By the way, anyone in Victoria, there’s a film festival about abortion coming up. I thinks its called “A Womb With a View”. Probably worth checking out.
Thanks for the article about Canada, Cara. It set my nationalist Canuck heart aglow.

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