Abortion restrictions continue 20 years after ruling
Twenty years ago today, Canada made a landmark judgment when our highest court struck down Criminal Code restrictions on abortion.
The 5-2 ruling in the case of R. v. Morgentaler overturned the law that had required the consent of three doctors for any abortion and limited the procedure to full-service hospitals rather than free-standing clinics.
The court ruled that those restrictions violated the Charter of Rights' guarantee of "right to life, liberty, and the security of the person."
The Conservative government of Brian Mulroney tried to rewrite the law. It proposed legislation that would require the consent of just one doctor, would allow abortions in non-hospital clinics and widened the medical grounds for the procedure.
The bill passed the Commons but failed in the Senate in a tie vote. Since then, no government -- Liberal or Conservative -- has attempted to revive the abortion issue. That's left it in a sort of legal limbo: technically legal and yet not guaranteed.
Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, says the ruling was "huge" for Canadian women.
"No longer did women have to sacrifice their lives and health in order to end an unwanted pregnancy," she told Canada AM Monday.
"It has undoubtedly protected the health and saved the lives of countless women in Canada," she says, noting that in countries today where abortion is illegal, 70,000 women lose their life to unsafe abortions.
Saporta believes though that the battle for the right to abortion continues on another front: the fight for access what is supposedly no longer illegal. Many Canadian women, particularly some in the Maritimes, face the problem of finding someone who can provide them with an abortion.
"Access is most restricted in New Brunswick, where, in order to obtain a publicly-funded abortion, women have to have it done in a hospital, by an ob/gyn, and have a referral from two physicians -- which is contrary to the Supreme Court decision," she says.
There are also no abortion providers in Prince Edward Island or Saskatchewan.
"And abortion is the only time-sensitive, medically necessary procedure that isn't included in the inter-provincial billing. So women living out of their home province have to either pay out-of-pocket or return to their home province for an abortion."
As well, surveys indicate that fewer than 20 per cent of hospitals actually perform abortions, and there are only 22 private clinics, mostly in major cities.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the man who persevered through four jury trials and a 10-month jail term on his way to the high court, is now 83 and in semi-retirement. But he is still challenging the New Brunswick policy in court.
Andrea Mrozek, who runs a blog called ProWomanProLife believes the Morgentaler decision was a sad day in Canadian history. She says there is a "misconception" that abortion is a woman's right; instead, she believes it "doesn't serve women well."
Nevertheless, she is not interested in fighting to make abortion illegal again, as many other anti-abortionists would like to do. Instead, she hopes that women will stop choosing it.
"We're not interested in addressing legislation," she told Canada AM. "This country has been without a law for 20 years. We believe that people in this country want a law to restrict it in some situations -- late-term abortion for example -- is one area where there's agreement.
"But we want to talk to women about what abortion is: it's taking the life of your unborn child. And we think there are more compassionate options," she adds. "Just look at the 'Juno' phenomenon. That movie just shows that there's life after an unplanned pregnancy. There is a way."