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The Abortion Rights Looking Glass: Canada Reflects Women First

By Nick van der Graaf, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine.

Currently, Canada is the only country in the world where there are no criminal laws pertaining to abortion. Combined with our publicly-funded universal health care system, this means abortion is available on demand, period.

Many in the United States don’t know that, or how that right was secured, or why — despite facing renewed anti-choice activism and a horrendous right-wing federal government in Ottawa — abortion rights are likely here to stay.

Canadian feminists worked for decades to create a pro-choice culture, and the effort has paid off. Carolyn Egan, originally a Boston native, is a director and founder of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. She sees Canadian feminists’ success as a result of building a movement rather than focusing on politicians and legislatures. “I think we recognized there was a large pro-choice sentiment in this country that had to be organized,” says Egan. “We felt a direct challenge to the law [that declared abortion a criminal act] would be the spark to do that. If a clinic was opened it could — and did — become a symbol of women’s resistance to an unjust law. So we tried to build a movement that went beyond the women’s movement, that had trade unions, immigrant communities, students, etc.”

In May 1970 the Abortion Caravan — a motley collection of vehicles driven by dedicated activists — drove 5,000 miles from Vancouver to Ottawa, organizing demonstrations and picking up supporters along the way. When they got to Parliament Hill they launched two days of protests, including an unprecedented disruption of Parliament itself. The country was electrified. Egan strongly believes that grassroots organizing is what did the trick.

Building Pro-Choice Consciousness

In the years following, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CAREL) mostly worked like its similarly named ally south of the border, NARAL: lobbying politicians in Ottawa. But, across the country, grassroots organizations like the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics kept up the pressure in the streets, organizing frequent and ever-growing protests. “We wanted to organize a pro-choice consciousness across the country and in effect change the balance of power in a significant way,” Egan adds, “so that judges would have no other option but to see that the law, as it was framed, was unenforceable.”

Decades later, evidence of Egan’s “pro-choice consciousness” is still readily apparent. The province of Alberta, Canada’s own oil-laden Texas, held a provincial election this past spring. The ruling Conservative Party faced certain defeat from the upstart libertarian Wildrose Party. When Calgary writer Jane Cawthorne (“The Abortion Monologues”) asked Wildrose leaders about their views on abortion rights for her blog, they candidly admitted they were prepared to hold a referendum on it. Albertans’ ardour for Wildrose evaporated overnight. They lost the election.

“Once the Wildrose Party’s stance on social issues became clear, Albertans fled from them,” says Cawthorne. “It was a combination of their position on abortion and conscience rights that finally woke the public up to their very Republican brand of politics. This won’t fly, not even in Alberta.”

A penal code devoid of abortion as a crime, combined with our publicly-funded universal health care system, has brought most Canadian women close to what the Abortion Caravan called for: “Free abortion on demand, from B.C. to Newfoundland!”

In 1969, abortion became legally available as long as it was performed in accredited hospitals, with a woman first having to face a “therapeutic abortion committee” which determined whether she was “allowed” to have one. While an improvement on the previous total ban on abortion, the system was designed to accommodate the doctors involved, not the women who had to go through this demeaning process, all the while under a ticking clock.


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