[Editor's Note: Read Ann's great new book!]
How did what we call the Pro-Choice movement get started?
You may be surprised to learn that women began focussing on abortion
after the Federal government reformed the Abortion Law. Canada re-wrote
its law, in the Criminal Code - it affected the whole country -
so that some abortions would be legal. The reformed law took effect
in August 1969.
In British Columbia, organized feminism had existed for about a
year. The first group called itself The Women's Caucus and originally
consisted of students at SFU and UBC.
The Women's Caucus was very dissatisfied with the reformed abortion
Abortion Law in Canada
In 1892, the federal Canadian Criminal Code made every aspect of
abortion illegal. It was illegal to discuss, find materials for,
or perform abortions. Nearly the same was true for contraception.
A slight leniency allowed abortion when it would save the life of
the pregnant woman, and the most severe penalty - life imprisonment
- was reserved for practitioners of the procedure.
It was also against the law for a woman to seek an abortion, to
allow one to be performed on herself, or to self-abort, but, by
the mid-20th century, women who were found out, usually because
they were rushed to hospital bleeding or poisoned, were often not
subjected to legal punishment. That did not prevent the police from
questioning a frightened, bed-ridden hospital patient; the police
often hounded women who had had abortions, demanding information
about who had performed the procedure.
By the 1960s, public attitudes had changed. Reform movements arose
in Western Europe, Japan, and North America, and cautious adjustments
were being made to abortion laws.
When Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau tabled an 'Omnibus Bill to
Amend The Criminal Code' in December, 1967, 'reform' of the abortion
law was one of the 104 revisions proposed. The new law was, in fact,
even more complex and difficult to observe than the old law, but
it was nonetheless touted as the reform of the century.
Trudeau explained it with his famous phrase: 'The state has no
business in the bedrooms of the nation.'
The reformed abortion law was in effect from August, 1969 to January,
1988. What were its provisions?
The 1969 Reformed Abortion Law turned responsibility for abortions
over to the medical profession - and, in particular, to hospital
1. The law allowed antiseptic abortions to be performed in major
hospitals, provided that
2. The hospital administrators decided to perform them - and
3. Set up a legally-required Therapeutic Abortion Committee, which
a. had to consist of three doctors, none of whom performed abortions;
b. reviewed all cases referred to it, taking its sweet time,
without much regard for the fact that the applicant was becoming
increasingly pregnant with each day and week;
c. was satisfied that the applicant's life or health was in danger
because of the pregnancy;
d. gave its approval for an abortion, before the time limit set
by the hospital expired (these varied according to the hospital;
generally it was 10-20 weeks of gestation)
4. The TAC could add requirements to those in the Criminal Code
- such as setting quotas for abortions performed in its hospital,
or requiring one, two or more written referrals (requests) from
doctors for an abortion patient; or limiting applicants to those
lived in a particular city or even a particular neighborhood;
5. Some TACs turned down every application for an abortion; that
was their purpose. Hospitals were under no legal obligation to establish
TACs; TACs were under no obligation to approve any abortions.
6. The woman applicant could not appear before the TAC to argue
her case. The decision was made strictly among doctors.
7. And the law provided for no appeal of the TAC's decision.
8. Once a woman was turned down, she was most probably too advanced
in her pregnancy to get a legal abortion at another hospital - even
if she were able to find a sympathetic doctor who would refer her
to a different TAC.
9. For the rare woman who got through that byzantine process and
was admitted to hospital for an abortion,
a. She had to be prepared to stay over at least one night, because,
despite the speed and simplicity of doing an abortion, general
anesthetics were used (quite unnecessary for a simple operation,
and far more dangerous than the abortion itself);
b. Many women reported being scolded or humiliated by their doctors
or the nursing staff, who did their best to shame abortion patients.
It was not uncommon for doctors who agreed to perform hospital
abortions to demand high fees under the table - $100-$200 on top
of the medical plan. Highly illegal, but widely practiced.