25 years of legal abortion in Canada


On Torontoist, an appreciation of the 25th anniversary of R v Morgantaler, the court decision that made safe and legal abortion on demand the rule of the land in Canada:

When police raided Henry Morgentaler’s Harbord Street clinic in July, 1983, no doors were kicked in. “There was a policewoman and a policeman undercover who had booked an appointment,” Dr. Robert Scott recalls, addressing a packed hall at the University of Toronto Tuesday night, at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision decriminalizing abortion. “I was actually doing the procedure when the raid started. They banged on the door and I said, ‘I’m in the middle of a case.’”

Scott stifles a laugh at the relatively subdued beginnings that led to such revolutionary ends. “They were very nice in the sense they said, ‘Go ahead and finish the case.’”

His arrest, along with that of Dr. Frank Smoling and Morgentaler himself, set in motion a chain of events that would test the repatriated constitution of 1982, cementing the foundation of civil rights in Canada. Presented by the David Asper Center for Constitutional Rights, the faculty of law’s panel discussion was convened to take legal and sociopolitical stock, comparing where we are today with the country brimming with volatile change in the early 1980s.

“Our job was to change the consciousness of the country,” recalled Carolyn Egan, longtime trade unionist, political activist, and a key witness in the Morgentaler trial. To Canadians 25 years later, she said, the draconian controls limiting access to abortion may be hard to imagine. Therapeutic Abortion Committees—three-doctor panels with the assumed power of federal judges, so argued Morgentaler’s defence—decided whether an attempt to discontinue a pregnancy was justified. In almost every case, these were doctors with no personal knowledge of a patient’s background, medical or otherwise, and often predominately male. And even that “service” wasn’t available to all. It would depend on resources available at each hospital, often leaving poor, rural, or First Nations communities behind.

My mom was an activist in this fight, and the illustration above is a newspaper article from 1972 about her work to legalise abortion in Canada. The kid on her lap is me!

R v. Morgentaler, 25 Years Later

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  1. You are one happy baby in that picture!
    Seriously though, it’s nice to be reminded of this bit of history.  The price of freedom is eternal activism, it seems.

  2. I love this. A smiling woman with a happy baby juxtaposed with the word “abortion”. Without knowing anything about your background, I feel confident in stating you were a happy baby because you were a wanted baby. Go Cory’s mom!

  3. It’s been interesting seeing the very cautious way people have been ‘celebrating’ this anniversary.  Even now, 25 years later, it’s still a very emotionally charged issue, with passionate voices on each side.

    The interesting fallout from the supreme court decision is that it just struck down the laws in place at the time, and since then there has been no legislation to replace it, which means abortion in Canada is not limited by any legislation at all – the only considerations that matter are those between a woman and her doctor, although there are some guidelines and regulations put in place by Provinces. In short, the Criminal Code of Canada says that a baby is only a baby at the moment of birth.  The Chief Justice at the time wrote:

    “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person.”

    Interestingly, a member of the governing Conservative party (which officially has no policy stance on abortion) introduced a private-members bill which would study the issue of putting some sort of law in place to govern the practice a couple of years ago. Even that much movement towards legislation was debated hotly enough that when it went for a vote, it was defeated with even many Conservatives voting against it, with the socially conservative Prime Minister saying he would not re-open the debate on abortion and voting against the bill himself. My feeling is that it’s probably pretty safe to say the status quo isn’t going to move anywhere for a while.

    Somehow, this has not led to the complete destruction of our society, women are not treating it as a form of birth control, and god has completely failed to rain destruction down upon us. In fact, since 1998 the rates of abortion have been falling.

    In unrelated news, I (likely amongst others) submitted this. It was fun finding it: scroll scroll scroll … hm. Interesting … hey, look at that hair… oh she’s named Doctorow…  Oh hey, it’s Corey!

    1. “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person.”

      God I love this country. Imagine the pushback to this in the US.

    2. god has completely failed to rain destruction down upon us.

      How else do you explain Celine Dion and Justin Bieber?

      Oh, shit. God’s using Canada to rain destruction on the rest of the world.

      1. Interesting. That means we are the instrument of god’s wrath? We create pestilences, and when they’re noxious enough, we unleash them to the world.

        I… Don’t know how I feel about that.

  4. “Murder” is for PEOPLE. Fetuses are NOT people. (They may be termed “pre-people” for the sake of argument). 
    “Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person.”

  5. Anwaya, I haven’t imposed any standards on anyone.  I merely believe that abortion should be done in an non-cruel way.  I’m don’t know why that ideal has become such a lightning rod for hostilities and comment removal.

    1. Mr. Friend, as I recall, you were not making any exceptions, but plenty of judgements. The way you put “it” in quotes, for example. And this is the first time you’ve raised the distinction between “cruel” and “non-cruel”. But how would anyone ever make this judgement?

      Is cruelty relative? If so, is a brief, small amount of cruelty more acceptable than a life of cruelty? If a woman, with the advice of her doctor, believes that carrying a foetus to term would be cruel, for the lifetime either of herself or the child, for example by endangering her life, the life of the child, or both, would abortion using a not-“non-cruel” method then be acceptable to you?

      Leaving the difficulties of the distinction aside, and given that you accept that there would be a role in society for “non-cruel” abortion, what role do you say a woman should have in the decision? What role should anyone else have? Is it, in the end, any of your business or mine what happens in the decision making process, if we are not directly involved? The decision is obviously non-trivial; people make mistakes; but people also make good decisions. We can trust the people concerned to do their best. As people, no-one needs the kind of heavy-handed, moralizing, micromanaging interference, hostility, obstruction and outright violation that is the objective of the “right-to-life” movement. A moment’s reflection on the current state of the law in Virginia and Texas will show I am not exaggerating.

  6. And yet now we have MPs trolling the RCMP over abortion. Vellacott, Benoit and Lizon need a clue by four to the head. Expect more backdoor attempts to block abortion by the forced birth idiots.

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