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On Monday, January 28, a special celebration and public forum will be held in Toronto to reflect on the 25th annivesary of the Morgentaler Supreme Court decision. Carolyn Egan, who will be one of the speakers at the forum, reflects on the lessons of the struggle that led up to the 1988 legal victory.
A major victory was won when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the federal abortion law in January of 1988. The campaign was situated in the broader context of reproductive freedom. Abortion rights were seen as one of a number of demands that the women’s movement was struggling for in the fight for reproductive rights for all.
Before the law was struck down, there was access to abortion, but it was a very privileged access. In 1969, legislation had been passed which allowed abortions to be performed if they took place in an approved or accredited hospital with the consent of a therapeutic abortion committee. There was uneven interpretation of the law across the country and many hospitals did not establish committees. The law was unjust and denied women the right to make decisions over their reproductive health.
The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) was formed in 1982. The group thought long and hard about how best to change an increasingly desperate situation for so many women. We looked at the circumstances in the province of Quebec where CLSCs (community health centres) and the Centre de santé des femmes (women’s health centre) were providing abortions to women in their own communities. A lesson was learned from our sisters in Quebec and we modelled our campaign after theirs. The strategy was the combination of a doctor willing to challenge the law and a broad and representative movement willing to fight for the necessary changes.
OCAC has always been a grassroots, activist organization. The immediate objectives were to overturn the federal law and to legalize freestanding clinics providing medically insured abortions. We were fully aware of the limits of the notion of “choice.” Full access to free abortion, as significant an advance as that would be, does not guarantee that all women have choices over their lives or over having or raising children. The definition of “choice” was broadened in our organizing.
OCAC stated that for all women to have real choices in our society they require safe and effective birth control services in their own languages and their own communities, decent jobs, paid parental leave, childcare, the right to live freely and openly regardless of their sexuality, employment equity, an end to forced or coerced sterilization, and, of course, full access to free abortion. All were required if women were to have reproductive freedom.
OCAC tried to ensure that the demand for abortion access was never seen in isolation, but as one of a number of interdependent struggles. We tried to make this concrete by challenging the coerced sterilization that Aboriginal women, women with disabilities and Black women were facing. We held joint forums on the issues with women speaking about the injustices that they were experiencing. Healthcare workers told us that therapeutic abortion committees sometimes refused abortions unless a woman agreed to be sterilized. We fought for childcare as a woman’s right and campaigned against extra billing by doctors.
OCAC worked with Dr. Henry Morgentaler and in 1983 he opened a clinic challenging the federal criminal code. The clinic became a symbol of women’s resistance to an unjust law. A long campaign against two levels of government and an organized anti-choice movement began.
It did not take long before the police raided the facility, seized the medical equipment, and arrested Drs. Morgentaler, Scott and Smoling. This was not unexpected and OCAC had been building broad support. We knew we were going to be in a long, drawn-out campaign. We had to change the balance of power in the country, and while the issue had to be in the courts because of the arrests, the critical task was mobilizing the strong support that we knew existed for women’s reproductive rights.
OCAC took a mass action approach. We did not leave the campaign to the lawyers or to the lobbying of politicians. We believed that tens of thousands of women and men would come into the streets across the country to fight for women’s reproductive freedom. Groups took up the cause in every province and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) fought side by side with us.
In linking struggles, OCAC was able to build a wide campaign through demonstrations, marches and rallies — in which thousands participated. Through our organizing, we were able to broaden the participation of trade unionists, students, AIDS activists, people of colour and immigrant women’s organizations in the campaign. We understood that, without the active participation and the support of thousands, no change would occur. The goal was to build a visible, mass movement that fought together for women’s reproductive freedom.
When the Supreme Court finally overturned the existing abortion law, it was through the strength of a broad and representative movement. It was a collective victory in which tens of thousands played an active role. The fact that OCAC understood that the state was not neutral — and was not acting in the interests of women — was critical to the success of our campaign. We believed that only a mass movement could change the balance of forces in the interest of all women.
There was a spontaneous demonstration of thousands of supporters outside the Morgentaler Clinic when the decision of the Supreme Court was announced. Women and men were dancing in the street! Similar rallies erupted across the country. Freestanding clinics were legalized in Ontario, fully covered by the healthcare system, and clinics began to open in other parts of the country as well.
It did not take long before the Conservative government in Ottawa began the process of introducing new legislation recriminalizing abortion. Because of the strong roots that had been developed, a major campaign against a new law was launched. There was wide support from groups such as the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women, the Canadian Labour Congress, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Federation des Femmes du Quebec, the United Church of Canada, the Canadian Medical Association, AIDS Action Now!, and a large range of provincial and local organizations across the country. There were national days of action and large numbers came out into the streets. Tragically, during this period, a young woman in Toronto died of a self-induced abortion because she believed a legal procedure was not available.
During the campaign against the new law and for increased access, anti-choice forces began another assault. “Operation Rescue,” as they called it, started in Toronto in the fall of 1988 and attempted to blockade the entrance to the Morgentaler Clinic. They physically and verbally harassed women seeking abortions.
OCAC organized defence of the clinics, rejecting the argument that it should be left to the police to protect the facilities. We would link arms, chanting, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay: born-again bigots, go away” and “Campaign Life: your name’s a lie. You don’t care if women die!” These chants reflected the politics of the campaign. The broad support created the political pressure to defeat the legislation in the Senate in 1991, after it narrowly passed in the House of Commons.
There are now over 30 freestanding clinics providing funded abortions across the country. Access is much wider than when the campaign began in the early 1980s and sexual health services are more widely available, but the fight for reproductive justice is far from over. Prince Edward Island is still forcing women to go to the mainland to access abortions, and New Brunswick refuses to fund clinic procedures. Hospital amalgamations and healthcare cuts are reducing reproductive services in many areas. Women are still being harassed as they enter clinics.
The Conservative government initially refused to fund International Planned Parenthood and now gives money on the condition that it be allocated only in countries where abortion is illegal. There is no national childcare program, equal pay for work of equal value is still a dream for many, employment equity has not been implemented, systemic discrimination still exists and many of the other services necessary for women to have real choices in their lives are not in place. Private members’ bills are regularly being introduced in the House of Commons to create barriers for women. To date, all have been defeated.
Support for reproductive justice is still very strong across the country. While the overall strategic situation has changed and will always change, the lessons of the campaign that was waged still remain relevant. The principles and tactics that were used created a broad-based movement for reproductive rights, which overturned the federal abortion law and created a network of clinics making abortion much more accessible for women who were previously denied.
Carolyn Egan is a long-time labour and women’s rights activist.
This article is excerpted from “Reproductive Rights and the Campaign to Overturn the Federal Abortion Law”, which will be published in a forthcoming anthology edited by Shannon Stettner. It was originally published in Socialist Worker and is reprinted with permission.
Photo: Photo: Eyton Z/Flickr