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30 years post-Morgentaler Decision: The journey remembered

Morgentaler Decision Day is January 28. That day, a mere 30 years ago, was life-changing for many Canadian women.
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​Written by: Dr. Dorothy Shaw, O.C., VP of Medical Affairs at BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre

​Dr. Henry Morgentaler was a leader who risked his life to provide women access to safe abortions. He was integral in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to overturn the abortion law in Canada as unconstitutional, violating section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That was a landmark decision for reproductive rights for women and the case was dubbed the Morgentaler Decision. 

Abortion was decriminalized in August 1969, but was still listed under the criminal code. A woman’s request for abortion required her physician to seek approval from a hospital-based committee of three physicians, none of whom could be the provider for that woman.  

Committees could reject the request and access was further limited because abortions were not performed at all hospitals. The Badgely Committee in 1977 reported that these barriers caused delays of eight weeks on average, with poor and rural women most impacted. Privacy and confidentiality were also concerns, especially in small communities. 

Morgentaler offered abortions in Quebec before abortion became legal because he knew many desperate women died from unsafe abortions, and believed women had the right to choose. Morgentaler was arrested, charged and acquitted many times—he was even imprisoned for providing abortion services. Undeterred, he continued to open illegal clinics to improve access for women.

I happened to be in Montreal, a naive 20-year-old medical student from Edinburgh, for my first-ever clinical experience in the summer of 1969. I saw a young woman in the ER in excruciating pain, an incident that left an indelible imprint. She had used potassium permanganate crystals, a highly caustic chemical used to treat infections, to self-induce an abortion because she felt that she couldn’t continue the pregnancy. She was left with a hole in her vagina that threatened her life. The experience forever shaped my views on women’s rights. 

When the Supreme Court struck down the abortion law in 1988, women were afraid, and some believed abortion had now become illegal. One woman died in Ontario from a self-induced abortion, and in BC another woman was seen in emergency after Premier Bill van der Zalm temporarily de-insured abortions. Chief Justice Allan McEachern of the BC Supreme Court nullified the provincial Cabinet decision refusing public financing of abortion. After three years of uncertainty, Canada was left with no law because Bill C43, which re-introduced abortion into the criminal code, was defeated in the Senate on a tied vote. Abortion then became part of our health care system.

Stigma still surrounds a woman’s decision to have an abortion even though the procedure is not rare. One-third of women in BC would have had an abortion during their lives. It’s reported that half of women having abortions used contraception when they became pregnant. Only the woman has the full story and understanding of her decision in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. Unsafe abortions still claim the lives of tens of thousands of women each year around the world and will nonetheless be sought by women who are denied their right to choose. Access to contraception and safe abortion lowers abortion rates. Restrictive laws only result in women dying or suffering severe harm and sometimes imprisonment in many places around the globe.

Recently, the Government of BC announced universal no-cost coverage for Mifegymiso, an alternative to surgical abortion. It is used to terminate pregnancies at an early stage of up to nine weeks. Unlike other countries, women in Canada who are prescribed Mifegymiso are not required to be observed by a doctor while taking it, which is respectful of their dignity, privacy and confidentiality.

Globally, Canada is seen as a leader because abortion is a fundamental part of the health care system and not dependent on a law whereby others decide whether or not a woman is permitted to make a decision about her own health. Now, with Mifegymiso, women can choose if, when and where to have an abortion. Barriers of access have been removed. #SheDecides. Morgentaler would be pleased. 

BC Women's Hospital + Health Centre
Women's Health
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