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