By Shannon Clarke
Images courtesy of rabbleradio via Wikimedia Commons
Somewhere in east Montreal is the clinic that became the catalyst for abortion reform in Canada more than 25 years ago. If you were to walk by it now, however, it’s just a normal house on a quiet residential street.
At Innis Town Hall last week on Jan. 28, feminists, allies and pro-choice activists celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision, when abortion became legal in Canada. Some participants had never known a time when abortion wasn’t legal.
“It’s incredible that in my entire lifetime, women have had the opportunity to live up to their potential and aspirations,” said Jillian Bardsley, a second year med student and co-president of the Toronto chapter for Medical Students for Choice.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, wasn’t there, but his wife, Arlene Leibowitz, did attend the celebration.
The evening was organized by Medical Students for Choice at the University of Toronto, and co-hosted by the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. It included a panel of women who were at the centre of the pro-choice movement inspired by Dr. Morgentaler’s then-illegal practice. He was the only trained physician in Canada who would do the procedure in 1969, when he performed his first abortion in Montreal at his newly-opened private abortion clinic.
“It was the most extraordinary political experience I ever had,” said writer Judy Rebick, who worked closely with Dr. Morgentaler in Toronto, and soon became known as “the Girl From the Clinic”.
On Jan. 28, 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a law that made abortions available but rarely possible. Women (mainly women privileged enough that they could afford the trip to Buffalo or pay for a private gynecologist) had to wait for a committee of men – the Therapeutic Abortion Committee – to decide whether or not they could obtain one.
It didn’t stop women from getting back-alley abortions in deplorable and often fatal conditions.
“We were just women and some men who felt we had to fight on principle,” said activist Carolyn Egan. “We fought for women to choose the children they had.”
Journalist Michele Landsberg became a link to the movement after her column at the Toronto Star. It was in that column that she wrote about anti-choice activist Joe Borowski, who spoke to a court in Saskatchewan on behalf of all unborn ovum in 1983. No women were invited to speak at the trial.
Landsberg read from her book Writing the Revolution on Monday night, and explained the satirical tone that her article took back then.
“I was struggling to make people understand how ludicrous it was to let men make decisions about of our bodies,” she said.
So pro-choice women made their voices heard in other ways. They organized at Queen’s Park and marched through Toronto’s downtown streets to Morgentaler’s second clinic in Toronto. They supported him when he was arrested, tried, convicted (the first time in Canadian history an appeal court overruled a verdict of not guilty) and jailed for 10 months. They rallied around him again when he won his third appeal in 1976, stirring up supporters wherever they went.
“People who didn’t have a strong position on choice saw him as a hero,” Rebick said. “They saw him as a little guy against the system.”
Morgentaler, an immigrant from Poland and Holocaust survivor, fought blatant anti-Semitism and threats in Montreal and Toronto in the years leading up to the landmark ruling. While he made history and changed the law by breaking it, his example only energized his detractors, who were also willing to go to jail for their cause.
He also faced considerable resistance from within the movement. Some women, said Egan, were opposed to rallying around a man for the right to choose.
Even after the ruling in 1988, Morgentaler’s life and the lives of all abortion providers were at risk.
The 90’s saw the high profile murders of three doctors in Vancouver, Manitoba and Ancaster, Ont. In 1992 a firebomb tore through the Toronto Women’s Bookstore in an attempt to destroy Morgentaler’s clinic on Harbord Street.
For all of the celebration this year, there is still work to be done, at home and around the world.
As of this year there are no abortions providers on Prince Edward Island (and women must get two letters of referrals from doctors before going elsewhere), and only a single clinic in Fredericton and women have to pay out of pocket. Conservative MPP Tim Hudak supported anti-choice legislation, and when the G8 summits were being held in Toronto in 2010, the Harper government did not include abortion in its discussion on maternal health-care in developing nations.
It’s what Robertson, the director of equity and community engagement at Women’s College Hospital, calls “anti-choice by stealth”.
“If [abortion rights] are worth protecting for women in this country, are they not equally worth protecting for other women around the world?” she says.
Abortion is only discussed in half of all Canadian medical schools and, said Bardsley, sometimes focus mainly on the philosophy and ethics surrounding the practice. In many schools there are few answers about questions about the procedure itself – duration, pain, recovery, process – despite the fact that a quarter of all pregnancies in Canada will end in abortion and third of women in North America will have one.
Since 1969 Dr. Morgentaler has opened eight clinics across Canada and has performed over 75, 000 abortions. He continues to practice and received the Order of Canada in 2008.
Dr. Morgentaler remains a polarizing figure in this country – a hero to some, and a murderer to others – but his work has made him one of the most important Canadians in history. Not a small feat for the man who vowed to follow in his social activist father’s footsteps.
“It was the movement that made the change but it was Henry Morgentaler who sparked the movement,” said Egan. M