Reproductive Rights and Choice

Much feminist organizing between the 1970s and 1990s focused on mobilizing to change abortion laws and to enable women to have increased control over if, how, and when they would have children. The 1968 publication of the Montreal Health Press’ Birth Control Handbook was one significant moment marking women’s organizing to enable women’s autonomy over their reproduction in spite of restrictive laws related to abortion and contraception.

As abortion laws were amended and birth control decriminalized in 1969, the period from the 1970s to the 1990s saw much change in relation to women’s reproductive rights. In addition to concerns about abortion and contraception, women mobilized around forced sterilization (particularly among women with disabilities), and racialized, Indigenous, and immigrant women challenged the too-narrow focus on abortion and contraception politics by raising the need to address the sociopolitical and socioeconomic circumstances that often hinder women’s capacity to make real, substantive choices about their reproductive lives. This period also saw the development of a range of new reproductive technologies, which also inspired feminist organizing.

Although the Criminal Code was amended to decriminalize abortion in 1969, the relevant restrictions were so  strict that relatively few abortions were provided and access was incredibly difficult. During this period rich women could buy relatively safe services from private doctors; women with fewer resources faced higher risks and many died. Numerous juries and chief coroners recommended amending the law. Women’s groups such as CARAL (Canadian Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Laws, later Canadian Abortion Rights Action League) lobbied, protested and demanded repeal of the law. Some activists organized to provide safe illegal abortions. Throughout this period, Dr. Henry Morgentaler opened stand-alone abortion clinics in a number of Canadian cities, and challenged the law by providing safe abortions. He was arrested several times and tried, juries refused to find him guilty.

Timelines

1968 — The McGill Students’ Society publishes and disseminates the first edition of the Birth Control Handbook publicly violating the provisions of the Criminal Code prohibiting the dissemination, sale, and advertisement of birth control methods.

1969 — changes to the Criminal Code of Canada permitted abortions only when performed by a doctor in an accredited hospital under certain conditions including a decision by a committee of three doctors that continuing the pregnancy threatened the life or health of the woman. Amendments also decriminalize birth control.

1970 — women’s liberation activists organized The Abortion Caravan (modelled after the On to Ottawa trek of depression in the 1930s). Seventeen activists travelled for two weeks from Vancouver to Ottawa to protest the abortion law. On the Monday after Mothers’ Day they left a coffin on the PM’s doorstep to honour the victims of backstreet abortions. They filled the Visitors’ Gallery in the House of Commons and some chained themselves to the seats. The Caravan succeeded in raising a public discussion about women’s capacity to determine if and when they had children.

1974 — Canadian Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Laws is founded, later Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL)

1983 —  Morgentaler abortion clinic in Toronto was bombed; it was burned down in 1992

1987  —  Concerned about the implications of in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and other reproductive technologies for women’s reproductive rights, a group of feminists led by Margrit Eichler and Maureen McTeer lobbied the government for a public inquiry as the Canadian Coalition for a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies

1988 (28 January)  —  The Supreme Court ruled in R. v. Morgentaler that the federal abortion law was unconstitutional; access to abortion services became a provincial matter.

1989  —  Tremblay v. Daigle decision rendered at the Supreme Court of Canada. The decision makes clear that a fetus is not a legal person in Canadian law, and that a potential father has the right to veto a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. (Decision supported by another judgement in 1989 – Borowski v. Canada)

1989 -– Brooks v. Canada Safeway Ltd. decision finds that under provincial and federal human rights law, discrimination based on pregnancy is a form of discrimination on the basis of sex.

1989 -– Federal government under Brian Mulroney introduces Bill C-43, which aims to recriminalize abortion except in cases where the pregnancy is harmful to a woman’s health. The Bill passes in the House of Commons, but is defeated in the Senate

1989 –- Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies is announced and begins its work

Resources

Jenson, Jane “The Politics of Abortion in Canada” in Women and the Canadian State, ed.Caroline Andrew and Sanda Rogers (Montreal and Kingston: McGill- Queen’s UniversityPress,1997), 291– 305.

Rebick, Judy “Is the Issue Choice?,”in Misconceptions: The Social Construction of Choice and the New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies, ed. Gwynne Basen, Margrit Eichler,and Abby Lippman, vol.1(Hull, QC: Voyageur,1993),87-89.

Krista Maeots “Abortion Caravan” Canadian Forum 50 July/August 1970: 594-95