People like Rick Mercer love to use abortion access as a way to highlight differences between Canada and the United States. According to these special souls women in the United States live in a state of being not unlike the Handmaid’s Tale. Without any knowledge of their own history regarding abortion, cakers will point to (ridiculous) new anti-abortion legislation in a backwards American state as evidence that the next generation of American women will all be named Offred. Typically, the American judiciary will do what it is constitutionally charged with doing and block stupid legislation from stupid places. But cakers ignore the finely-tuned instrumentation of the American system in favor of screeching like apes so as to mask their own ignorance of their own systems. Having said all of that, let’s take a walk through Canadian history to talk about how abortion access works in Canada, shall we?
We start with a woman named Emily Stowe, who was the first case I could find of Canada bringing the hammer down on an abortion provider. Stowe, who was Canada’s first (not-really but it’s complicated) licensed female doctor couldn’t even get into medical school in Canada, so she had to be trained in New York. In 1879, Stowe provided a minute quantity of a drug that could cause a miscarriage to an “annoying” 19-year old. By minute quantity, I mean “too little to actually do anything” minute. The result was a raucous trial which eventually saw her acquitted on the basis of her prescription being too small to do anything. Abortions would remain illegal under Section #251 of the Criminal Code of Canada until 1969.
It was in that year that the Great Liberator of Canada, Pierre Trudeau would take steps to decriminalize abortion pursuant to the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Only a year before Hawai’i legalized abortion on request, California and ten other states legalized access to abortion by writ and Washington state held a public vote legalizing abortion access, Canada finally passed some kind of “permissive legislation” regarding abortion access. The “permissions” required for a Canadian woman to have an abortion performed were strict, to say the least. Remember that Commission that recommended legalizing abortion? Yeah, that was only up to the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. By contrast the “stupid legislation” I pointed to from Mississippi is a ban after fifteen weeks.
And the horror of Canada’s “legalization” doesn’t stop there. In order to access abortion legally under Pierre Trudeau’s regime, you had to get approval from a Therapeutic Abortion Committee, or TAC. The role of the TAC was to effectively judge whether a woman could bypass the existing criminal prohibitions on abortion. TACs were given tons of wiggle room because of the wording of the legislation, meaning that decisions were often arbitrarily in the negative. A TAC that was too lenient was often shuttered and replaced by the hospital in question with one that was harsher. This cockamamie system would remain in place until 1988, which you might recognize as really not that fucking long ago and also recognize as 15 years after the permissive ruling of Roe v. Wade (we’ll get into the difference between permissive and non-permissive rulings in a bit) To this day, hospitals are still notoriously shy about the provision of a service cakers pretend is elementary and regularly available.
The province that actually forced Canada to confront its Victorian attitudes regarding abortion was of course Quebec, the only province in this shithole with the stones to stand up to obscene regulation. Enter Henry Morgentaler, who actually served jail time and endured a firebombing of his clinic in Toronto in this country of unending tolerance and respect for women’s rights. Morgentaler’s tireless work providing abortions where hospitals refused (and still refuse) to earned him unending legal troubles until the infamous R v. Morgentaler ruled that the arcane insanity of the TAC was unconstitutional.
After that, we get an attempt from Brian Mulroney to pass new legislation regarding abortion which would entrench restrictive bureaucracy and penalize women who are so desperate that they seek to self-abort. A tie vote in the Senate killed that first and last attempt to legislate abortion in Canada. And here’s where I talk about the difference between permissive rulings and the Wild West that Canada lives in. Roe v. Wade sets in law the right to have an abortion; R v. Morgentaler merely cancels Canada’s abortion legislation. Since then, Canada hasn’t bothered trying to pass any kind of ruling on the issue.
The problem with this is that the Wild West mentality tends to restrict abortion access. New Brunswick doesn’t allow for abortions broadly speaking, and there’s not a goddamn thing Canada can do about it. Outside of Ontario barriers and restrictions to abortion are common, especially in rural areas. Even with rule changes the lack of ultrasound machines coupled with a non-medically-necessary requirement to have an ultrasound before medication inducing abortion can be provided still hampers access in rural Canada. Without legalized abortion in Canada training for abortions is still haphazard and often wanting. If #RealChange gave a shit he could fix this mess, but he won’t because that’s hard…and because Canadians on the whole aren’t particularly liberal on the matter themselves.