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.
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All because of an absurdly simplistic pro-life exhibit at my university