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Canada: 20th anniversary of hard won reproductive rights

Dr. Morgentaler was charged in 1983 for performing illegal abortions

Monday 28 January 2008

MORGENTALER CASE - Reproductive rights won through sacrifice

Twenty years after abortion was legalized, many young women know little of the struggle behind the facts

in TheStar.com, Jan 24, 2008

by Madeleine White

For many young women, the “a-word” is still a scary thing. This word is not something I sit around with my girlfriends and gossip about. The stigma attached to it continues to exist, but perhaps covertly. There is almost a tacit understanding that says: “One shall not utter this word unless absolutely necessary.” And no one wants this word to apply to her life.

This word is abortion. And on Monday, Jan. 28, abortion will be marking its 20th anniversary of being decreed legal by the Supreme Court of Canada.

But perhaps the celebration will be a quiet one as discussions about abortions tend to occur in a whisper. This can be seen in the way two recent and popular movies dealt with young pregnant women. Knocked Up and Juno both gloss over abortions. Knocked Up disposes of the option in a single line of dialogue. Juno digs a little deeper into the issue by having the main character visit (and flee from) a clinic.

Neither movie presents abortion as a preferable option for young women. This cinematic disregard helps foster the idea that, even when legalized, abortions are undesirable.

But is this a good representation of the general opinion of abortions among young women?

I am a student at the University of Toronto. Not only that, I am a women and gender studies major. I have sat through several hundred hours of lectures on the rights of women, the struggle of liberation, the battle for equality and the history of our progress. I have even taken a course on women and the law. Two full classes of that course were dedicated to studying the Morgentaler case of 1988.

For those of you who are a little rusty on Canadian legal history, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was charged in 1983 with performing illegal abortions in Ontario. At the time, so-called therapeutic abortions could be performed legally only at a hospital and then only if the procedure was approved by a hospital committee. The Supreme Court ruled that requiring women to obtain hospital permission before having an abortion denied them fundamental justice. The 1988 decision – by a ruling of 5 to 2 – struck down the legislation as unconstitutional, which essentially meant abortion would become a matter discussed between a woman and her doctor.

We are taught in class that the significance of this judicial decision was overwhelming when it was announced 20 years ago. The ruling meant access to safe, sanitary abortions for all women – regardless of class, since our health care is universal. When I read about the decision and its consequences, I understood its importance – at least on the surface. But having never been in a position to need an abortion, my understanding of this historic event in the Canadian women’s movement is limited to a series of facts, names and a few dates.

History can come alive when something in your life happens to bring it home. This happened to me when I began writing this piece. While doing further research on Morgentaler, I stumbled upon a fact that was left out of my women and law course: one of his clinics was firebombed in 1992 – an act of anger over the 1988 decision.

What hit me hard was realizing that this clinic was in Toronto. In fact, it was right beside the University of Toronto – steps away from the Women and Gender Studies Institute on Harbord St.

I have walked by this location hundreds of times without knowing its history. This shocked me. I tout myself as a well-educated young feminist. I take pride in my knowledge of the history of Canadian feminism. And yet I had no idea I had been striding past a place that was once a site of violent confrontations over what many of my friends and I now see as a right.

This new understanding provoked a long period of reflection for me: young women today may know our reproductive rights, but we do not realize the full extent of the battle that was waged so that we could sit in a clinic in 2008 and wait for a legal, safe abortion free of institutional hassle. With only a set of legal facts constituting our social memory, we cannot fully appreciate the sacrifices women and men made, risking their personal safety in order to champion our ability to make responsible decisions about our bodies.

I realize the abortion issue is still alive and kicking in Canadian society, but not in the same way. The conflict is evident on campus every so often when there is a pamphlet battle between the pro-life and pro-choice student organizations. But the worst these rallies produce is a paper cut, not a fire bomb.

Women are not taught about the human element when they learn about the Morgentaler case. The fact is that real people made real progress in places that were not so far from where we study, work and live.

On Monday, I will walk by the new building on Harbord St. where the Morgentaler clinic once stood. I will take a moment to absorb its history. And quietly, I will thank the building for standing there as a reminder of our strenuous past and my present privileges.

Madeleine White, 22, is a women’s studies student at U of T and, coincidentally, a feminist.