Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

What does #Decrim mean? An interview with Canadian pro-choice campaigner Carolyn Egan

Abortion Rights campaigns for the decriminalisation of abortion. We are often asked, what will abortion services look like after we have won?

There is a lot of scaremongering from the anti-choice lobby about what decriminalisation would mean, so we are going to take a look at Canada, where abortion is decriminalised. We talked to veteran pro-choice campaigner in Canada, Carolyn Egan, about how they won decriminalisation of abortion services and how it changed services.

Carolyn is a socialist and a founding member of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, the organisation that initiated and organised the campaign to overturn the federal abortion law. The biggest lesson from Canada is that we must be vigilant. The change in the law only came about because activists were prepared to fight for it!


How did Canada get to the situation today where services are not covered by any criminal law?

CE: In the early 1980s there was access to abortion but it was quite regulated. The healthcare system covered the cost for permanent residents with health cards but each case had to go before a therapeutic abortion committee made up of three doctors. Middle class women with their own gynaecologist or the means to travel to the US had access, while low-income, immigrant, indigenous, rural women and women of colour had difficulty accessing the procedure.

A number of women healthcare workers, including myself, met to talk about the situation and felt it was important to organise a broad movement to overturn the federal abortion law which was racist and class-biased in its application. 

We asked a physician, Dr Henry Morgentaler, who had already fought for and won access in the province of Quebec, to open a clinic in Toronto to challenge the law. He was previously jailed for breaking the law, but with the support of a mass movement the federal legislation was no longer enforced in Quebec.   

We, with many others, built a movement that spoke to the reality of women’s lives knowing that we had to overturn the law to allow every woman to have access to abortion. At the same time we recognised that to really have choices in our society we need decent work, freedom from racial and sexual harassment, birth control in our own communities and our own languages, the right to be free from forced or coerced sterilisation and of course full access to free abortion. 

We did not leave it to lobbying politicians or appealing to the courts. We opened a clinic challenging the law and it became a symbol of women’s resistance. When it was raided by police and the doctors in Toronto were arrested, it sparked a movement of hundreds of thousands across the country. 

Jury trials found the doctors innocent, even thought they admitted to breaking the law. It ended finally in the Supreme Court of Canada, which overturned the federal law that restricted abortion. We felt that the judges did not function in a bubble. If there were huge demonstrations across the country, strong popular support, and juries would not convict, the Supreme Court would rule in our favour. 

There was an attempt to recriminalise abortion following this decision, but it failed in parliament and there are no legislative restrictions on abortion.


How are abortion services regulated or overseen?

CE: Abortions are regulated by the medical profession, and there is oversight in every province. The number of third trimester abortions is very small and usually due to foetal abnormality or risk to the life or health of the person carrying the foetus.


Is access an issue for women living outside of bigger cities?

CE: Yes it is, and though things have vastly improved there are still problems. Rural areas of most provinces have poor access. Some provinces have travel grants to assist. British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec the most populated provinces are better served than others. So these are still issues we are campaigning on. 


Are abortions provided by public health care or by private providers?

CE: Abortions are covered by the public health system across the country as long as you have a health card whether in a hospital or a clinic. Clinics provide the majority of the abortions.


Does the government monitor abortion statistics? 

CE: Abortion statistics are kept. I’m not sure that the government monitors them.


Do you have conscientious objection clauses for health workers to avoid doing abortions? If you do is there much take up of this option?

CE: A health care provider does not have to perform an abortion if they are opposed to it. In Ontario they are obliged to refer to another provider. It hasn’t seemed to be a major issue. Though I am sure in rural areas it may be hard to find a physician to do the procedure. There are hotlines, and public health sexual health clinics refer those seeking an abortion.


Is there much or any stigma in society around having an abortion?

CE: Not in the way it once was. It is seen as part of the health care system. The law was overturned in 1988 so young people are growing up knowing that it is available to them and feel that it is their right. 


Do anti-abortion campaigners still try to limit/block abortion provision?

CE: The anti-choice, a vocal minority, is gaining confidence because of what is happening in the US, but there is a strong pro-choice majority in the country. Those who are opposed to abortion are well funded, and still have yearly marches, try to harass women as they enter facilities etc. 

Anti choice members of parliament try to put forward private members bills restricting access but they have all failed. Even the Tories say they don’t want to reopen the abortion debate but they do what they can to support the anti-choice movement. 

A “safe access to abortion” bill was passed in Ontario to prohibit the harassment of women entering hospitals or clinics and the antis are challenging it. Other provinces have “bubble zones” to protect clients. The anti-choice side is still quite vocal and we have to be ever vigilant regarding attacks on our rights.  A strong pro-choice and reproductive rights movement is critical


What would you say are the most positive aspects of the decriminalisation of abortion?

CE: The fact that we won in the streets, the parliament and the courts showed that collective action can make change is a very positive lesson. Also the fact that forces beyond the women’s movement such as trade unions, people of colour organisations and others took a significant role shows how broad based campaigns can win. 

The fact that we fought for not just the legal right to abortion but that it should be free and available to everyone who seeks it was very important.  Because it was such a broad movement, those who fought for the right to abortion feel it was very much their victory and therefore will continue to fight to maintain it.