Today, the Vancouver Sun published my op-ed in honor of the 25th anniversary of the historic R v. Morgentaler decision, which struck down Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional and decriminalized abortion.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of R v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion in Canada. This landmark decision has undoubtedly protected the health and saved the lives of countless women and changed the legal landscape in Canada.
Before Jan. 28, 1988, abortion was permitted only in very limited circumstances. Hospitals with Therapeutic Abortion Committees could approve and provide abortion care only in cases of life or health endangerment. In order to obtain a legal abortion, women were forced to face an intimidating process of going before a hospital committee to petition for care. This policy established unequal access to abortion throughout the provinces and territories, and made it particularly difficult for women outside major urban centres to obtain abortion care.
It is estimated during this time that 35,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions took place each year. And we may never know the actual number of women who sacrificed their lives and health through back alley or self-induced abortions.
The battle for abortion rights was fought in Parliament, in the courtroom, and in the streets. Just as they had done for voting rights and human rights, women mobilized – this time around obtaining the right to have a safe and legal abortion.
In 1970, 18 years before abortion was removed from the Criminal Code, the Vancouver Women’s Caucus organized the first national feminist protest to liberalize the abortion law. The Abortion Caravan, as they were called, travelled more than 4,828 kilometres from Vancouver to Ottawa, where 500 women demonstrated for two days demanding legal access to abortion. And 30 women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons, closing Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. This relatively small group of women stood up and demanded that all women have equal access to abortion care. These 30 women gave a voice to Canadian women who were unable to legally obtain the abortion care they needed.
Additionally, Dr. Henry Morgentaler defied the law and opened the first Canadian freestanding abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. For the next 20 years, he continued to fight the system and even served prison time for providing women with safe abortion care. Dr. Morgentaler remained committed to liberalizing Canada’s abortion law and continued to speak out for women’s reproductive freedom.
These efforts were successful, and today Canada is one of only a few countries without a federal law restricting abortion. The R v. Morgentaler decision has been named as one of the most important and influential Charter cases and it has made a critical difference in women’s ability to control their bodies and fully participate in society.
As Justice Bertha Wilson – the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court – wrote in her opinion in the case, “The right to liberty contained in s. 7 guarantees to every individual a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting their private lives.”
This decision rightly removed the government from private medical decisions and is a human rights victory for women. Just like giving women the right to vote, strengthening aboriginal rights, or decriminalizing homosexuality, the right to obtain legal abortion care was hard fought and extensively debated. Yet none of these other rights are so constantly under attack or up for debate.
There would be massive public outrage if politicians or groups called to revoke women’s voting rights. In fact, even to think about such a prospect seems absurd. We should have the same reaction to those who wish to reopen the abortion debate.
It is critical to the lives and health of Canadian women that abortion is safe, legal, and accessible. We must protect all the rights we’ve earned.