Morgentaler’s Gift to Feminism


Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a law that prevented women from being able to chose an abortion if they wanted one. Though abortion had already been decriminalized in Canada in 1969, the procedure was available only to women whose requests were approved by the Therapeutic Abortion Committee. Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who fought and won the landmark case, believed that women should be able to make that decision independent of a committee. It was each woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body – no one else’s.

This ruling has been very important for women and feminism during the past quarter century. It makes abortion a woman’s decision, taking power away from the panel of male doctors who made up the Therapeutic Abortion Committee. Their job was to approve a woman’s abortion only if the mother’s health was at risk, but since the term “health” was not defined, the law was open to many different interpretations and access to abortion varied significantly with the men’s personal assessment of each situation.

It’s not that I don’t think men are capable of comprehending the gravity of pregnancy or that they shouldn’t have a say in their wife/girlfriend/partner’s decision to abort, but I do believe it’s ultimately up to the woman because she is the one who must carry that pregnancy for 40 weeks, go through labour, and, under typical circumstances, be the primary caregiver for the first couple of years. During the creation and beginning of a child’s life, being a mother is tougher physical work than being a father.

For a panel of male judges (or anyone, for that matter) to demand that a woman carry a pregnancy that she does not want or cannot feasibly have at that point in her life is like a form of temporary slavery. As Supriya Dwivedi writes in the Huffington Post, “History demonstrates that a society’s attitude toward abortion is inextricably linked with its perceptions of women and their role in the family, religiosity, and social conservatism.” In a Western society that strives for female equality, anything less than full rights for control over one’s body for women is preposterous.

Morgentaler’s win moved the abortion debate out of the religious/ethical field and made it a legal question. Although we already live in a country that thankfully separates religion and state, it’s easy for some of these trickier questions to become loaded with religious undertones that make objective perspective hard to achieve. By ruling that the “constraints placed on abortion were unconstitutional” and that they infringed on a woman’s right to “life, liberty, and security of the person” (Dwivedi, Huffington Post), abortion was freed up to become a truly personal decision. Religious women and those who were bothered by the ethical side of the debate didn’t have to abort, but those women whose situations were more dire finally had an escape route.

In conclusion, I’m happy to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Morgentaler’s win in the Supreme Court. He was a fascinating man who was one of the first to perform vasectomies, insert IUDs, and give birth control pills to unmarried women. He received criminal charges for performing abortions illegally in his Montreal clinic in response to the avalanche of requests he received from women pleading for the procedure, and that’s what precipitated his legal battle. Thanks to Morgentaler, women in Canada now have power over a decision that drastically shapes their path in life.

Stats according to a study conducted by the Globe and Mail:
44% of Canadians believe that abortions should be permitted in all cases
23% think abortion should be permitted but subject to greater regulations
18% say it should be permitted only in cases of rape or incest or to save a woman’s life
5% believe it should never be permitted.
About 70,000 legal abortions are performed annually in Canada.

Related Posts on Feisty Red Hair:
All because of an absurdly simplistic pro-life exhibit at my university


7 thoughts on “Morgentaler’s Gift to Feminism

  1. It is always good to take control of your body. Thank God I did not live in a country that prohibited women from abortion. But also I think, it is important to mention that abortion is not good for the women’s health as well, and it should not be used as pregnancy protection tool. I think 70.000 abortion per year is very high. It seems that still many women and men choose to have unprotected sex.

    1. The physical side effects of a procedure such as an abortion should most definitely be public knowledge. I do believe there is a system in place to ensure that the choice to have an abortion is an educated one, although I’m not an expert in this area. I do agree that 70 000 abortions is quite a high number and I’d likely fall into the 23% group that believe abortion should be permitted but should also have some regulations attached. It shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control but it is a grey area that is tough to regulate. I would say that the choice to have unprotected sex is a separate issue to be addressed.

    2. I absolutely agree with you that abortion shouldn’t be used as birth control. That’s irresponsible and unhealthy. The other problem — and I wrote about this in the post linked below this article — is that there needs to be a lot more social support in place for women who want to have babies. I think a lot of girls feel pressured into having an abortion because there seems to be no other option. That must be addressed.

      1. I very much agree! Again, looking at my experience, people were shocked when I told them I was not only pregnant but keeping my baby to raise myself. The common question was, “How are you going to do that?” and of course, at 17, I didn’t have a clue but knew I’d figure it out somehow! Not every woman is able to see that there is options and it is doable!

  2. I love Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the work he has done! When I was in elementary school I did an assignment on his work. I was supposed to do the research and then present it to my class. Unfortunately I was unable to present my hard work due to the school board policies at the time (I was attending a Catholic elementary school). I didn’t take the news lightly! This inspired me to continue researching and advocating for the rights of women regarding abortion. The school didn’t appreciate my flyers and brochures that I passed out to my fellow students but I didn’t appreciate their censorship!

    I’ve always been a strong supporter of abortions. Interestingly, when I was only 17 and found out I was pregnant, abortion was not option in my mind, regardless of what any of my friends, family, or boyfriend thought. Whether or not abortions were legal or whether or not I would have opted for one are irrelevant. The bottom line is that there should be freedom of choice. I chose no and that was most certainly the right choice for me, but others choose yes and if that is the right choice for them the I fully support that.

    Thanks for highlighting this man and his lifelong efforts! I don’t think he gets enough coverage/credit nowadays!

    1. Wow, it’s hard to imagine that kind of censorship in North America nowadays, isn’t it? The Catholic church does have trouble keeping up with the times, doesn’t it?! Good for you for persevering with your advocacy.

      Like you, I chose the non-abortion route when I got pregnant at 21, but I believe that women have to have that choice available to them. Heck, it made me feel better knowing that I had an escape route if necessary, though I didn’t go in that direction.

      1. That’s it right there – there needs to be a choice and we in Canada, thanks to the work of Dr. Morgentaler and others like him, have that choice. It’s important to have the freedom, as a woman, to make a choice based on your needs, values, etc. Freedom & autonomy are basic human necessities (in my opinion!) and when it comes to issues like abortion it is no different!

        Perhaps my decision to not have an abortion was in fact easier for me to make because I did have options. Although I didn’t consider having an abortion but looking at it retrospectively I can see how my decision would have been easier since it was just that, my decision!

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