Twenty Years of Freedom!

20 years of choiceIn the mid- to late-80’s I was a student representative to the Regina Reproductive Rights Coalition which worked to find ways around, over, and through the restrictive abortion law of the day. We networked with women across the country to put an end to the discriminatory law, known as Section 251. That law required any woman who wanted to terminate a pregnancy to not only find a doctor who would perform the procedure but also to have the procedure approved by a hospital’s Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC). In Saskatchewan an invisible line divided the province into north and south. Women who lived south of Davidson dealt with Regina’s TAC; women to the north, with Saskatoon’s.

By 1986, there was one doctor in Regina who would perform an abortion, but he would do so according to his interpretation of the law. Basically, he decided which circumstances were the right ones. Needless to say, most women sought other options. The Regina Women’s Community Centre counseled women to go elsewhere for the procedure. Many drove to clinics in the USA or traveled to Ontario. Those with no financial wherewithal went to Saskatoon, where a doctor at the Saskatoon Community Clinic, Dr. John Bury, courageously provided the procedure with very few questions asked. It meant two trips to Saskatoon and a false address if a woman lived south of Davidson. And, it meant waiting days or weeks for the phone call to find out whether or not the TAC had approved the procedure. But for a lot of women, that wait was worth it and Dr. Bury was a lifesaver!

On January 28, 1988, after Dr. Henry Morgentaller’s 8 years legal battle, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the law saying it infringed on women’s personal security:

State interference with bodily integrity and serious state-imposed psychological stress, at least in the criminal law context, constitutes a breach of security of the person. Section 251 clearly interferes with a woman’s physical and bodily integrity. Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus an infringement of security of the person.

When we heard the news on campus, we were elated! We knew it meant freedom of choice for women on the matter of their own reproductivity for as long as there was no law. I do not know, however, if we really understood the great significance of Justice Bertha Wilson’s Minority Report and her consideration of women’s Charter rights. From p. 171:

…I would conclude, therefore, that the right to liberty contained in s. 7 guarantees to every individual a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting their private lives.

The question then becomes whether the decision of a woman to terminate her pregnancy falls within this class of protected decisions. I have no doubt that it does. This decision is one that will have profound psychological, economic and social consequences for the pregnant woman. The circumstances giving rise to it can be complex and varied and there may be, and usually are, powerful considerations militating in opposite directions. It is a decision that deeply reflects the way the woman thinks about herself and her relationship to others and to society at large. It is not just a medical decision; it is a profound social and ethical one as well. Her response to it will be the response of the whole person.

.

Wilson went further, providing a feminist-based interpretation and questioning a man’s capacity to so much as understand what a decision such as this is to a woman:

It is probably impossible for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma not just because it is outside the realm of his personal experience … but because he can relate to it only by objectifying it, thereby eliminating the subjective elements of the female psyche which are at the heart of the dilemma.

She cited an important essay, “International Law and Human Rights: the Case of Women’s Rights,” by Noreen Burrows from the University of Glasgow, who pointed out that

the history of the struggle for human rights from the eighteenth century on has been the history of men struggling to assert their dignity and common humanity against an overbearing state apparatus. The more recent struggle for women’s rights has been a struggle to eliminate discrimination, to achieve a place for women in a man’s world, to develop a set of legislative reforms in order to place women in the same position as men (pp. 81-82). It has not been a struggle to define the rights of women in relation to their special place in the societal structure and in relation to the biological distinction between the two sexes. Thus, women’s needs and aspirations are only now being translated into protected rights. The right to reproduce or not to reproduce which is in issue in this case is one such right and is properly perceived as an integral part of modern woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth as a human being.

I believe it is because of Justice Bertha Wilson’s statements that we are able, today, to celebrate 20 years of reproductive freedom in Canada. I extend a great thank you to the late Justice Bertha Wilson, to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, and to the thousands of women and supportive men who worked together to gain this fundamental freedom for Canadian women.

Happy anniversary!

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6 Comments

  1. This was a momentous decision. I remember it clearly, particularly since the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms was fairly new at the time.

    Reply
  2. Hi, back!

    “Where were you when…” I was a hanger-on at the Abortion Caravan when it came to Ottawa in 1970, and sat on Trudeau’s lawn for a while. Left the country, returned in 1973, the next year Henry was jailed and I found something to get engaged in, pronto. Our Ottawa Chapter of CARAL was a going concern. When I look back on it, we worked like dogs. We lobbied, we picketed, we wrote countless letters and articles, we once marched right into a crowd of right-to-lifers who failed to read our signs but twigged when we got to their mike! Two of us researched and co-wrote a pamphlet called “Childbirth by Choice.” I became friends with Eleanor Pelrine, and later with Henry.

    I think my misgiving about all of this was that we won in the courts instead of on the ground. I left the board of CARAL when they chose a virulently anti-union lawyer to push the constitutional case. My proposal was that we sell shares in (then-illegal) abortion clinics, thousands of them, as an act of civil disobedience–we would have all been guilty of criminal conspiracy to violate Section 251. We could have made the law a dead letter, just like the law against contraception (formally repealed in 1968, but inoperative for decades before that).

    It’s the same gut reaction as I has about the PSAC pay equity case. Huge victory, but won by our experts beating their experts.

    But a victory’s a victory. I’ve lost touch with Henry, but I’m sure he’s doing well. I shall raise a glass in his honour this evening, and another one for Eleanor, may she rest in peace.

    Reply
  3. thereginamom

     /  January 28, 2008

    I want to offer these links to Judy Rebick’s piece at rabble.ca and Heather Mallick’s at cbc.ca for your information.

    Reply
  4. Thank you, Regina Mom, and also Dr Dawg.
    Happy Anniversary to us all.

    Reply
  5. L.

     /  January 29, 2008

    Thanks, Regina Mom, for doing that kind of work while some of us were unenlightened students, spending our college days drinking beer and eating pizza! Without women like you, I shudder to think where we’d be today.

    L.

    ps. I never could understand why we let so many men have any air time at all to discuss this issue.

    Reply

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