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The Abortion Rights Looking Glass: Canada Reflects Women First

Across the Northern border Canada is the only country with no criminal laws related to abortion, a right that feminists worked hard for and still work to preserve today.

Currently, Canada is the only country in the world where there are no criminal laws pertaining to abortion. Combined with our publicly-funded universal health care system, this means abortion is available on demand, period.

Many in the United States don’t know that, or how that right was secured, or why — despite facing renewed anti-choice activism and a horrendous right-wing federal government in Ottawa — abortion rights are likely here to stay.

Canadian feminists worked for decades to create a pro-choice culture, and the effort has paid off. Carolyn Egan, originally a Boston native, is a director and founder of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. She sees Canadian feminists’ success as a result of building a movement rather than focusing on politicians and legislatures. “I think we recognized there was a large pro-choice sentiment in this country that had to be organized,” says Egan. “We felt a direct challenge to the law [that declared abortion a criminal act] would be the spark to do that. If a clinic was opened it could — and did — become a symbol of women’s resistance to an unjust law. So we tried to build a movement that went beyond the women’s movement, that had trade unions, immigrant communities, students, etc.”

In May 1970 the Abortion Caravan — a motley collection of vehicles driven by dedicated activists — drove 5,000 miles from Vancouver to Ottawa, organizing demonstrations and picking up supporters along the way. When they got to Parliament Hill they launched two days of protests, including an unprecedented disruption of Parliament itself. The country was electrified. Egan strongly believes that grassroots organizing is what did the trick.

Building Pro-Choice Consciousness

In the years following, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CAREL) mostly worked like its similarly named ally south of the border, NARAL: lobbying politicians in Ottawa. But, across the country, grassroots organizations like the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics kept up the pressure in the streets, organizing frequent and ever-growing protests. “We wanted to organize a pro-choice consciousness across the country and in effect change the balance of power in a significant way,” Egan adds, “so that judges would have no other option but to see that the law, as it was framed, was unenforceable.”

Decades later, evidence of Egan’s “pro-choice consciousness” is still readily apparent. The province of Alberta, Canada’s own oil-laden Texas, held a provincial election this past spring. The ruling Conservative Party faced certain defeat from the upstart libertarian Wildrose Party. When Calgary writer Jane Cawthorne (“The Abortion Monologues”) asked Wildrose leaders about their views on abortion rights for her blog, they candidly admitted they were prepared to hold a referendum on it. Albertans’ ardour for Wildrose evaporated overnight. They lost the election.

“Once the Wildrose Party’s stance on social issues became clear, Albertans fled from them,” says Cawthorne. “It was a combination of their position on abortion and conscience rights that finally woke the public up to their very Republican brand of politics. This won’t fly, not even in Alberta.”

A penal code devoid of abortion as a crime, combined with our publicly-funded universal health care system, has brought most Canadian women close to what the Abortion Caravan called for: “Free abortion on demand, from B.C. to Newfoundland!”

In 1969, abortion became legally available as long as it was performed in accredited hospitals, with a woman first having to face a “therapeutic abortion committee” which determined whether she was “allowed” to have one. While an improvement on the previous total ban on abortion, the system was designed to accommodate the doctors involved, not the women who had to go through this demeaning process, all the while under a ticking clock.

Appalled by that system, Auschwitz survivor Dr. Henry Morgentaler set up his own Montreal abortion clinic in defiance of the law. When he was arrested, Dr. Morgentaler was repeatedly acquitted by juries he faced: ordinary Canadians thought that women could control their fertility on their own just fine, thank you, even if a patriarchal government wanted to control abortion access. So, finally, did the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988, in the landmark case R v Morgentaler.

The Morgentaler decision definitively established that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does guarantee women’s autonomy and security of person. Abortion was removed entirely from the criminal code, and now is simply another medical procedure, appropriately regulated by the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Twenty-five years later, that decision is still solid, according to Joyce Arthur, the Executive Director of theAbortion Rights Coalition of Canada. “The Supreme Court has been furthering and solidifying Charter rights over the years with various decisions, including some related to abortion rights, and the lack of fetal rights,” she says. That precedent, Arthur adds, offers some protection against any efforts to exchange women’s rights in exchange for fetal rights.

In addition, Canada is much less subject than it once was to the power of organized religion. This has made a solid difference in the way anti-choice propaganda is received. For two centuries Canadian society was sharply divided by a conflict between the Anglo-Protestant and French-and-Irish-Catholic communities. Social progress became identified with policies, including a broad secularization, which decreased these tensions. In the 1960s, church authority was sharply reduced after severe social upheaval in Quebec, while then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced reforms to laws regarding abortion, homosexuality and divorce, saying: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Or the church, either.

“Canadians are generally quite secular and not overly religious, especially in Québec, which has been a boon to Canadian feminism and the pro-choice movement,” says Joyce Arthur. “Canadians don’t like religion being shoved down their throats.”

Maritime Provinces: Canada’s Alabama?

Not that barriers to choice are nonexistent: the most serious involve access. “Although Canadian women have the legal right to abortion, this does not mean that they have full and available access,” says Jolanta Scott-Parker, Executive Director of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, the Canadian affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF).

As mundane as it may seem, geography is a serious issue in Canada. In the second-largest (in land mass) country in the world, most Canadians live huddled up against the nice warm border with the United States. But Canadians in rural or northern areas can find themselves isolated to a degree that can be difficult to imagine in the Lower 48. Many women, particularly native women in northern communities, arehopelessly far away from almost any medical services, never mind those specializing in reproductive health. “This often means that women have to travel out of their communities, often at their own cost,” says the Federation for Sexual Health’s Scott-Parker.

In addition, while abortion is among the medical treatments covered by Canada’s government-paid national insurance, the provision of these benefits is entirely at the discretion of provincial governments. This creates a manmade access problem, especially in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. “The province of Prince Edward Island does not offer abortion services at all, requiring women to travel out of province,” Scott-Parker notes, “and in New Brunswick provincial health care does not cover the cost” either of the procedure or the cost of traveling to a clinic elsewhere for care.

In fact, those provincial governments, especially very-Catholic New Brunswick, are breaking the law. Their actions are in violation of the Canada Health Act , the statute that lays out the terms under which Canadians enjoy — thoroughly — their godless socialized healthcare. Unfortunately, the federal government, led by the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has no interest in making those provinces comply. Harper is a deeply conservative evangelical, hostile to the women’s movement for his entire public career.

However the prime minister, a smarter, blander George W. Bush, knows a toxic issue when he sees one. He has led his party’s majority in all kinds of odious legislation, declaring war on the environment and Canadians’ democratic rights, but he is also acutely aware that the majority of Canadians are solidly pro-choice. A 2010 EKOS poll found that 52 percent of Canadians consider themselves pro-choice, 27 percent identify as pro-life, and the remaining 21 percent either don’t know where they stand or don’t care.

Thus, the Conservatives’ malign neglect. Harper’s government took a year to make good its funding commitments to International Planned Parenthood, and in 2010 developed a feel-good abortion-free international development program called the “Maternal Health Initiative,” assailed by Hillary Clinton, as well as by pro-choice activists.

But so far, there has been little sign of that odd duck known as the anti-abortion “single-issue voter,” and, therefore, Harper has said repeatedly: “I’ve been very clear … as long as I’m Prime Minister we are not revisiting the abortion debate. Any such legislation will be defeated as long as I am Prime Minister.” He’s backed by his party: When a backbench member of his caucus recently tried to introduce legislation on fetal personhood, Government Whip Gordon O’Connor spoke decisively against it. “I cannot understand why those who are adamantly opposed to abortion want to impose their beliefs on others by way of the Criminal Code,” O’Connor said. “Abortion cannot be eliminated. It is part of the human condition.” Try to imagine any Republican in the House or the Senate defending abortion rights with these words.

So far, the secular, pro-choice culture that the Abortion Caravan activists and their successors helped build has proved self-reinforcing.

Carolyn Egan speaks regularly to students at high schools across the Greater Toronto Area about abortion rights. “About 50 percent of the kids are from immigrant communities, and in every classroom the vast majority of young people are pro-choice. They’ve grown up seeing abortion as part of the healthcare system. If they have an unplanned pregnancy, they can show up, present their health card at a clinic, and get the procedure they need. They have seen it is a basic part of our public healthcare system, and it would be very hard to take away.”

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