January 28, 2013 marks the 25th anniversary of R v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court's ruling that decriminalized abortion in Canada. This landmark decision has undoubtedly protected the health and saved the lives of countless women, and was named as one of the most important and influential Charter cases of the last 25 years. The lawsuit's namesake Dr. Henry Morgentaler
In the years leading up to the Morgentaler decision, abortion was permitted only in very limited circumstances. Hospitals with Therapeutic Abortion Committees could approve and provide abortion care only in cases of life or health endangerment. In order to obtain a legal abortion, women were forced to face an intimidating process of going before a hospital committee to petition for care. This policy established unequal access to abortion throughout the provinces and territories, and made it particularly difficult for women outside major urban centers to obtain abortion care. It is estimated during this time that 35,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions took place each year. We may never know the actual number of women who sacrificed their lives and health through back alley or self-induced abortions.
Throughout history, major movements have been started by dedicated people who were willing to stand up and give a voice to people in need. The battle for abortion rights was fought in Parliament, in the courtroom, and in the streets. Just as they had done for voting rights and human rights, women mobilized this time around obtaining the right to have a safe and legal abortion.
In 1970, 18 years before abortion was removed from the Criminal Code, the Vancouver Women's Caucus organized the first national feminist protest to liberalize the abortion law. The Abortion Caravan, as they were called, traveled over 3,000 miles from Vancouver to Ottawa, where 500 women demonstrated for two days demanding legal access to abortion. And 30 women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons, closing Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. This relatively small group of women stood up and demanded that all women have equal access to abortion care. These 30 women gave a voice to the tens of thousands of Canadian women who were unable to legally obtain the abortion care they needed.
As women organized in our quest for reproductive freedom, one man stood out as a leader for our cause and a champion for our rights. Dr. Morgentaler defied the law and opened the first Canadian freestanding abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969. For the next 20 years, he continued to fight the system and even served prison time for providing women with safe abortion care. At tremendous risk to his life and personal safety, Dr. Morgentaler remained committed to liberalizing Canada's abortion law and continued to speak out for women's reproductive freedom.
In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional in R v. Morgentaler. The law was found to violate Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it infringed upon a woman's right to "life, liberty and security of person."
Chief Justice Brian Dickson wrote: "Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction to carry a foetus 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 a violation of her security of the person."
Today Canada is one of only a few countries without a federal law restricting abortion.Abortion is treated like any other medical procedure and is governed by provincial and medical regulations.