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The Legal Status of Abortion in Canada:
1892 to 1988

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by Ann Thomson

[Editor's Note: Read Ann's great new book!] See below

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 law.

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 administrations.

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.

Order the Book

Winning Choice on Abortion: How British Columbian and Canadian Women Won the Battles of the 1970's and 1980's

$31.45 Canadian, 336 pages

More about the book, including excerpts and how to order:

Trafford Publishing

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