Pre-1969: Abortion and Birth Control
Early Legislative History on Abortion & Birth Control
With the passage of Canada’s first Criminal Code in 1892, the evolution of reproductive rights in Canada begins. Contraception and abortion were banned after much testimony and debate in the House of Commons. Member of Parliament John Charlton had especially strong views regarding the corrupting influence of the publication of information related to reproductive health. Due to opinions like his, information about birth control and abortion was banned in the Criminal Code and included under the section related to laws governing the corruption of morals and the publication of obscene matter.
From this point forward, the law regarded contraception and abortion to be moral concerns, and one of the easiest ways to control access to contraception and birth control was to forbid the dissemination of information in the form of advertising of contraception and abortion methods, including medicines and devices.
“Everyone is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to two years imprisonment who knowingly, without lawful excuse of justification, offers to sell, advertises, publishes an advertisement of or has for sale or disposal of any medicine, drug or article intended or represented as a means of preventing conception or causing abortion."The Criminal Code, 1892.S.C. 1892, c. 29, s. 179.
“Vile literature is secretly and widely circulated in Canada, literature of a character calculated to undermine the morals of the people, and entail the most disastrous consequences on society. Improper and obscene, or semi-obscene literature is imported into this country and openly sold. Drugs and instruments for procuring abortion and for kindred purposes are advertised secretly and are sold by agents, and this abuse cannot very readily be reached by the law as it now stands.”John Charlton, M.P. for North Norfolk, 1872-1904Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.Debates, 7th Parliament, 2nd Session, 1892,Vol.35, May 11, 1892, column 2458.
The 1930's: A Discrepancy between Law and Practice
In the 1935 Criminal Code of Canada, contraception and abortion continued to be banned, and the law was extended to also include prohibition against any information regarding sexually transmitted or sexually related diseases. This did not mean that information about contraception was not available. Books such as Sex, Marriage and Birth Control: Lifting the Blinds of Marriage by the Reverend Alfred Henry Tyrer, published by the Marriage Welfare Bureau of Toronto, were widely available. Although information about abortion was still considered too radical, information about contraception was available as long as it was exclusively directed to married couples. Contraception information for the unmarried was still viewed as a corrupting influence that would lead to immoral behaviour.
“Everyone is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to two years imprisonment who knowingly, without lawful justification or excuse, offers to sell, advertises, publishes an advertisement of or has for sale or disposal of any means or instructions or any medicine, drug or article intended or represented as a means of preventing conception or causing abortion or miscarriage; or advertises or publishes an advertisement of any means, instructions, medicine, drug or article for restoring sexual virility or curing venereal diseases or diseases of the generative origins."Crankshaw’s criminal code of Canada.Toronto: Carswell, 1935, s. 207.
“There are methods [of birth control] that involve practically no expense, for instance the vinegar or olive oil tampon or rag… Vinegar is a very effective contraceptive. Try and own a fountain syringe if at all possible. A well soaked rag used as directed, followed by a warm soapy douche will probably never fail you.”Reverend Alfred Henry TyrerIn Sex, Marriage and Birth Control: Lifting the Blinds of MarriageToronto: Marriage Welfare Bureau, 1936, 43-44.
The 1960's: A Time for Change
By the 1960’s contraception was still illegal; however, in practice the law was broken over and over again by individuals, health care workers, and even local governments. Only some religious organizations and their supporters continued to resist attempts to decriminalize contraception or efforts to discuss lessening of restrictions or outright legalization of abortion. Significant discussions took place in the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare that was formed in 1966 in part to address these questions, including impassioned testimonies on both sides of the debate.
“The law has not prevented most people of average means, if you like, in Canada from obtaining information on this subject, but it has in the past worked to the detriment of lower income families, the kind of people you find in social welfare rolls, because many public bodies have hesitated to give information on the subject simply because it was against the law. However, public bodies are not paying attention to that now. The city of Toronto found about a year and a half ago that their social welfare department was giving prescriptions for birth control pills to people on social welfare rolls. Then the city council discovered this they debated it for a while and finally decided it was all right, they could continue in spite of the law.”Bob PrittieM.P. for Burnaby-Richmond, 1962-1968Canada. Parliament. House of Commons.Standing Committee on Health and Welfare. Minutes of Proceedingsand Evidence, 27th Parliament, 1st session, (Issue no. 1, March 1, 1966).
Multiple unsuccessful bills were introduced in order to change the laws about the status of birth control and abortion, particularly by Grace MacInnis and Robert William Prittie. These bills include C-64 (1963), C-22 (1966), C-40 (1966), C-64 (1966), C-71 (1966), C-122 (1967), C-123 (1967), C-136 (1967).
The Birth Control Pill
The birth control pill was available in Canada in the 1960s, although advertising and informing the public about contraceptives was still illegal. In practice, these laws were not enforced and it was rare for someone to be charged under such laws.