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Access, Protest, and Dr. Henry Morgentaler


1970-1988: The Conditions of Abortion

Despite reforms to the Criminal Code in 1969, access to legal abortions was unequal across provinces and municipalities. Some regions lacked hospitals equipped with Therapeutic Abortion Committees (TACs) altogether. In many cases, women were forced to travel long distances within and outside of the country for legal abortions, or seek dangerous illegal abortions due to denials by TACs or delays within the TAC process.

“My neighbour sent me to [redacted] where I received an interview. About three days later we met again with the counsellor, who informed us that the [redacted] doctors working with them were willing to take on my case, but because of the great number of applications going before the Committee at the [redacted] Hospital, relative to the few abortions that were actually done (the committee meets only once a week), that it would be three to four weeks before I could expect an abortion in [redacted] … I realized that I would have to take the only alternate route— to [redacted]. I was lucky in that we could afford it.”

Committee on the Operation of the Abortion
Law. [Redacted] Personal Account 20, Report,
1977, 190. 

1970: The Abortion Caravan

Marcy Cohen, "The Abortion Caravan," YouTube. Added March 24, 2011

In protest of these barriers, the Vancouver Women’s Caucus’ Abortion Caravan travelled to Ottawa for a series of demonstrations which culminated in members chaining themselves in the House of Commons in 1970. Report of the Committee on the Operation of the Abortion Law  , also known as the Badgley Report, was released in 1977 and further highlighted the inconsistencies and inequalities surrounding abortion laws in Canada.

"The Vancouver Women’s Caucus’ Abortion Caravan set out from British Columbia in April 1970. A Volkswagen van equipped with a black coffin filled with coat hangers symbolizing the claimed 2,000 annual deaths from illegal abortions on its roof figured prominently in the procession. Upon reaching Ottawa, the group held several demonstrations and their requests to meet with major politicians like John Turner and PM Trudeau were ignored. Protesters entered the public galleries of the House of Commons, chained themselves to their seats and chanted pro-choice slogans like “free abortion on demand”, forcing the house to adjourn."

Sanger, Clyde. “Angry, shouting women disrupt House sitting,” 
Globe and Mail, May 12 1970.

The Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL)

In addition to the Vancouver Women's Caucus, other national pro-choice rights groups were established in the early 1970s. Founded in 1973, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) actively lobbied the government for abortion reform and provided legal support for pro-choice activists throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Founding members included Dr. Henry Morgentaler. 


Dr. Henry Morgentaler

Dr. Henry Morgentaler openly challenged the abortion laws in Canada by operating private abortion clinics across the country. Following multiple police raids and two overturned acquittals, Morgentaler served an 18 month jail sentence. He continued operating abortion clinics and challenging abortion laws despite continued legal action. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the sections of the Criminal Code governing abortion in Canada were unconstitutional as they undermined a woman’s personal rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Fierce debates in the House of Commons ensued following the decision. 

“... the uncontradicted evidence established that, rather than protecting women s.251 [of the Criminal Code] has the effect of harming them by compelling an enormous sacrifice of women’s physical and mental autonomy, by perpetuating the traditional stereotypes of women as incapable of moral and practical decisionmaking and of women’s ‘maternal destiny’, thereby denying women a status equal to men, and by harming women physically and psychologically. The ‘protective’ committee and hospital requirements in s.251(4) degrade and humiliate women and are medically unnecessary (indeed ‘contra-indicated’). Delays which result from the operation of s.251(4) harm and endanger women, and some women are forced to endure an unwanted pregnancy and raise an unwanted child.”

 R. v. Morgentaler (1988), 1 S.C.R. 30
(Appellant’s factum at 27)

Aftermath of R. v. Morgentaler in the House of Commons

Legislators grappled with trying to balance the rights of women with establishing the rights of the unborn. The opposing sides of this issue are exemplified in an exchange between Marion Dewar and Gus Mitges.

"It has never been an easy decision. Very often, if there were other alternatives, they would decide not to have an abortion. We do not have child care, we very often treat women as sex objects and refuse to put services forward, and then have the gall to say they have a choice."

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.
Debates. 33rd Parliament 2nd Session, 
1986-1988, vol. July 26th, 1988, p.17972. 
Access, Protest, and Dr. Henry Morgentaler