Today we celebrate the 21st anniversary of R v. Morgentaler, which struck down Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional and decriminalized abortion. The lives and health of countless women have been saved by this landmark decision. Before this ruling, it is estimated that 35,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions took place each year, and we may never know the actual number of women who were injured or died as a result of back alley or self-induced abortions.
This decision has had a lasting impact on the legal landscape in Canada and would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of NAF member Dr. Henry Morgentaler. In 1969, Dr. Morgentaler defied the law and opened the first Canadian freestanding abortion clinic in Montreal. For the next 20 years he continued to fight the system and even served prison time for providing women with safe abortion care. At tremendous risk to his life and personal safety, Dr. Morgentaler remained committed to liberalizing Canada’s abortion law and continued to speak out for women’s reproductive freedom. Last year Dr. Morgentaler was appointed to the Order of Canada for his willingness to “put himself at risk in his determined drive to increase health care options for Canadian women.”
While today is a day to celebrate the Morgentaler decision and the fact that Canada is one of only a few countries without a federal law restricting abortion, it is also a time to reflect on the barriers to access women continue to face 21 years later. Even though abortion is considered a safe, legal, and insured service, access is variable across the country. For example:
· Since the majority of abortion care is provided in urban centres, women living in rural communities often face challenges in accessing care. Prince Edward Island does not even have an abortion provider in the entire province.
· Unsound provincial policies in New Brunswick prevent a woman from obtaining a publicly funded abortion unless the abortion is provided by an obstetrician-gynecologist, in a hospital, and only after two doctors have approved that it is medically necessary.
· Throughout the country, abortion is the only time-sensitive and medically necessary procedure excluded from the list of services on the inter-provincial billing agreement.
Although we have great cause to celebrate today, now more than ever, it is important that we do not lose sight of the women who continue to face obstacles in order to obtain the abortion care they need.
>See my op/ed in the Toronto Star commemorating this landmark decision.