Celebrating 25 Years of Decriminalized Abortion in Canada

by | January 26, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

prochoiceLast week American feminists and pro-choice activists celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and on Monday January 28, Canadians will mark the 25th anniversary of the R. v. Morgentaler decision, which decriminalized abortion in Canada. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the case, there is a detailed timeline here.

In brief, Dr. Henry Morgentaler had been providing abortions, which were illegal under Section 251 of the Criminal Code, since 1968. In 1969 there was a change to the law which allowed for abortions in very limited circumstances: at a hospital with a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (panel of doctors) who could approve and perform abortions if a woman’s life or health was at risk. The change was unevenly implemented and women waited an average of eight weeks to access an abortion.

After years of legal battles, Morgentaler’s most recent case (he and two other doctors were arrested in 1983 for performing illegal abortions at a Toronto clinic) came to the Supreme Court of Canada, and on January 28th the abortion law was found to violate section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringes upon a woman’s right to life, liberty, and security of the person (a contrast to Roe, which was based on a woman’s right to privacy).

The decision was and is a big deal. In a statement of support, Anand Grover, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Health, said,In decriminalizing abortion, R v. Morgentaler upheld these principles as crucial to women’s reproductive freedom and autonomy. It recognised the fundamental right of a women to make decisions concerning her own body, ushering in an era of equality, dignity and freedom for women in Canada.”

Events will be held across the country to celebrate and reflect on the significance of the ruling. And the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has set up a website – www.morgentaler25years.ca – that’s full of great background and facts about the struggle for abortion rights from the 1960s to today. I encourage you to check it out and send a congratulatory message to Dr. Morgentaler.

I wasn’t yet born when Roe v. Wade was decided. And I was only two years old at the time of the Morgentaler decision, but I am so grateful for the work that was done so that I and other women of my generation could have safe access to the full range of reproductive health care. I value these anniversaries and the opportunity they provide to hear the stories of those who struggled for women’s rights long before the recent “War on Women”.

Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics (OCAC) wrote last week in Rabble about OCAC’s involvement with Morgentaler:

OCAC worked with Dr. Henry Morgentaler and in 1983 he opened a clinic challenging the federal criminal code. The clinic became a symbol of women’s resistance to an unjust law.  A long campaign against two levels of government and an organized anti-choice movement began.

It did not take long before the police raided the facility, seized the medical equipment, and arrested Drs. Morgentaler, Scott and Smoling. This was not unexpected and OCAC had been building broad support. We knew we were going to be in a long, drawn-out campaign. We had to change the balance of power in the country, and while the issue had to be in the courts because of the arrests, the critical task was mobilizing the strong support that we knew existed for women’s reproductive rights.

OCAC took a mass action approach. We did not leave the campaign to the lawyers or to the lobbying of politicians. We believed that tens of thousands of women and men would come into the streets across the country to fight for women’s reproductive freedom. Groups took up the cause in every province and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) fought side by side with us.

Five years ago for the 20th anniversary of the decision, Canadian feminist activist author Judy Rebick wrote about her memory of January 28, 1988 (she also wrote a post for the 25th, which you can read at Rabble):

After eight years of battles in the courts, in the streets, in the media and throughout society, we had won our argument at the highest court in the land and in the court of public opinion. The next day riding the street car, everyone was talking about the victory. Dr. Morgentaler had become a hero to most Canadians, the little guy fighting against the system. He had gone to jail for his beliefs in the 1970’s in Quebec, but still was willing to risk incarceration again in Ontario. He stood up to death threats, anti-semitism, ridicule and every other way that opponents try to silence fighters for justice, but he never wavered.

But without the work of the women’s movement, it is doubtful the victory would have been as deep-seated. First, the abortion battle is probably the best example of the relationship between social struggles and legal decisions. For almost ten years, the abortion debate had been on the front burner in Ontario and then across the country. Debates, marches, direct action, clinics opening and in some cases being shut down, clashes with the anti’s, resolutions in the unions, on campuses and in community organizations, everyone had to take a stand, including the Justices.

Many more people have shared their heartfelt reflections and thanks to Dr. Morgentaler at the 25th Anniversary Site, and I wanted to share some of those comments here because I know they helped me, someone who has never faced a pregnancy, more fully appreciate how important this right is:

Thank you so much for your active pursuit of enshrining in law a woman’s right to choose. I have terminated 2 unplanned pregnancies at the Morgentaler clinic, and have never regretted choosing the best option both for me and for those potential lives – I would not have been, in any way, a fit parent. I am now pregnant with a planned child and my partner and I could not be happier to welcome this new addition. This state of affairs would not be, had I not had the ability to decide to terminate when I needed to do so. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for dedicating your time and your passion to women’s reproductive freedom.

15 years ago, at the age of 18, I had an unplanned pregnancy. I saw my adult life, just starting, diverge in two potential paths in front of me. One of young, single motherhood, struggle and quite possibly bitterness. Another of education, opportunity and the possibility to choose motherhood later, when I was ready, or not, if I didn’t want to. I weighed the options and choose to terminate the pregnancy in favour of the later path. I am continually grateful that I was free to make this decision, and follow through with it safely. I know if not for the work of Dr. Morgentaler and hundreds of activists who struggled that I wouldn’t have been free to exercise control over my body and my destiny.

Thank you, Dr. Morgentaler, for fighting so hard for this basic right of women to have control over their own bodies. I have benefited from this. I am thankful that I have these rights. Many years ago, in my early 20s, while in university, I got pregnant and made the difficult decision to have an abortion. Thankfully, I was able to call up the Morgentaler Clinic and have access to those services. I had no idea that Dr. Morgentaler was actually going to be the one to perform the abortion. When he walked in the room, I was so excited to meet him and thank him for fighting for me and other women, but I was woozy from the drugs they had given me, and so awe-struck, I could barely say a word. What i wanted to say was thank you so much, I have so much admiration for you.

So even as we recognize the work there still to do both on abortion rights in the United States and in Canada, let’s not forget to celebrate and to thank those who fought these battles in the clinics, in Parliament, in the courts, and in the streets.


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