Post-1969: The Omnibus Bill and Abortion
"There's No Place for the State in Bedrooms of the Nation"
Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s famous statement was made in reference to the Omnibus Bill’s decriminalization of homosexuality; it is this same Bill that had a momentous impact on the laws concerning contraceptives and abortion.
A Turning Point: The Omnibus Bill
The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-69 was introduced as Bill C-150 by then Minister of Justice Pierre Trudeau, who was succeeded by the Minister of Justice John Turner. Among other things Bill C-150 decriminalized contraception and made abortion legal as long as it was first approved by three or more doctors. Bill C-150 was passed into law after extensive and impassioned debate in the House of Commons. By the time of the introduction of Bill C-150, public approval for the decriminalization of contraception was widespread, yet abortion remained a controversial and divisive issue.
Abortions after the Omnibus Bill
Under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-1969, obtaining a legal abortion was a complex, multi-step process. Legal abortions were limited to women whose pregnancies had been deemed to threaten their life or health. Pregnant women seeking abortions had to make a case to their hospital’s Therapeutic Abortion Committee, as well as obtain from the committee a “certificate in writing stat[ing] that in its opinion the continuation of the pregnancy of such female person would or would likely to endanger her life or health…”* Under the Act, the definition of health was determined by a doctor and made no consideration of a woman’s mental health or the circumstances of her life.
*Criminal Law Amendment Act, S. C. 1968-69, c. 38, s.18.
Too Far or Not Far Enough?
Although the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-1969 did profoundly change reproductive rights in Canada, it ushered in a new wave of struggles to expand reproductive rights. The abortion portion of the bill was a polarizing topic within the House of Commons. René Matte was against the bill because it made abortions too accessible; Grace MacInnis, on the other hand, voted against the bill because it did not go far enough.
“The whole subject of abortion should not be treated as a criminal matter but as the medical, personal and social matter which it is… The only way to meet these requirements is to remove the subject of abortion completely from the Criminal Code and leave it to those directly concerned, namely, pregnant women, their doctors and those members of the medical profession required.”Grace MacInnis
M.P. for Vancouver-Kingsway, 1965-1974
Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.
Debates, 28th Parliament, 1st Session, 1968-1969.
vol. 8, April 29, 1969, 8530.
“Complete freedom is liable to bring about a decadence of morals, which should certainly not be promoted by the house… If a pregnant woman who has marital troubles or others is asked if she is in favour of an abortion and if she answers yes, can we rely on her judgement?”René Matte
M.P. for Champlain, 1968-1979
Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.
Debates, 28th Parliament, 1st Session, 1968-1969,
vol. 8, April 29, 1969, 8133.
1970: The Report of Royal Commission on the Status of Women
In 1967, the federal government launched the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to explore the inequalities women faced in Canadian society. Royal commissions are official public inquiries that investigate issues, hear testimonies from multiple stakeholders and make policy recommendations. The hearings and briefs submitted to the Commission, which concluded in 1970, were some of the few opportunities women had to voice their concerns about reproductive issues in the public sphere.
“It follows that the law should be amended to permit abortion at the mother’s request after she has received the best medical advice available. Such legislative reform would then allow the Canadian woman complete dignity as a person with full rights, no longer subject to a discrimination imposed in a different century by an altogether different society.”University Women’s Club of North York.“Brief to Royal Commission on theStatus of Women, February 5 1968,”[North York, Ontario: 1968].
“On the subject of abortions: This is a problem for which only the woman involved can answer. She knows her circumstances and her limitations. She alone should be allowed to make the decision. We cannot and dare not stand in judgement… If a woman is considered intelligent enough to be entrusted with the care and upbringing of a family, surely she must be intelligent enough to make this most vital decision.”Storge, D.E. “Brief Submitted to theRoyal Commission on the Status ofWomen, March 23 1968,”[Penticton, B.C.: 1968].
“We have come to the conclusion that each woman should have the right to decide if she will terminate pregnancy… We propose that the approval of a hospital abortion committee be no longer required and that the decision be made by the woman after consultation with her physician.”Royal Commission on the Status of Women.Report, 1970, 286.
Religious groups, such as the United Church of Canada, were staunch opponents of liberalizing abortion law. In addition to lobbying the government and providing testimony to bodies like the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, groups like the United Church produced their own educational resources aimed at the general public.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1968-1969 was passed a year before the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was released. Despite the recommendations made by the Commission, the final decision to have an abortion was placed in the hands of a board (Therapeutic Abortion Committee) of three of more doctors.