Canada: How Mass Action Won

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Julia Silverstein

A BROAD-BASED alliance of labor, the women’s movement, anti-racist organizations and lesbian and gay organizations built a movement that enabled Canadians to win the Supreme Court victory last January 28th. But overturning the law is just the first stage in the fight for abortion rights in English Canada and Quebec. The decision clearly left a path open for new legislation-and no doubt the Conservative government is planning to recriminalize abortion, restricting it to the first twelve-to-sixteen weeks of gestation.

Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling several provinces declared they would not expand abortion services or authorize clinics to be set up. The most extreme position was taken by Bill Vander Zahn, premier of British Columbia, who explicitly allied himself with the anti-choice movement and attempted to allow funding only for abortion in cases where a woman’s life was threatened. He stopped when the provincial attorney general advised him that such a course was illegal. Other provinces have attempted to circumvent the ruling by requiring the approval of a second physician.

Along with these state attacks, we are witnessing a vicious backlash from the well-organized and well-financed anti-choice groups. They have launched an on-going propaganda blitz against the right of women to abortion and are hard at work denouncing the decision and lobbying politicians.

How We Won

The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) was established in 1982 by activists in the women’s health movement as a strategy to revitalize the movement to overturn the federal law. Section 251 of the criminal code allowed women to obtain abortion only through Therapeutic Abortion Committees (TACs) — made up of no less than three doctors in accredited hospitals — and only under the condition that a woman’s life was considered endangered if she did not obtain the procedure.

Passed in 1969 under the pressure of a women’s movement, the law allowed abortion under some circumstances, but did not require that hospitals provide the medical procedure or set up TACs. Consequently more than seventy percent of all Canadian hospitals did not perform abortions. Even in cities where committees exist and procedures were performed, access was a problem. For instance, one major Toronto hospital received seventy-five abortion inquiries a day, but made only six appointments.

Consequently Canadian women were forty percent more likely than U.S. women to have a high-risk abortion procedure. In fact Canada had the second-highest rate of second-trimester abortions of all the industrialized countries.

Despite Canada’s system of universal health care, most women seeking abortion were forced to pay a private gynecologist and get the necessary paper work done, or to go to a clinic in the United States. Activists in the Toronto area decided to challenge that practice by borrowing a page from the struggle that had been waged, and won, in Quebec.

A decade earlier Quebec had established a series of women’s health centers — including a wide range of services women needed, from birth control to pre­ and post-natal care — in which abortions were performed. The only place the women’s movement could find space was in a building owned by the Quebec Federation of Labor.

As soon as the clinic was open and performing abortions the province arrested the physician, Dr. Henry Morgentaler. However he was found not guilty by a jury of his peers on three separate occasions. However under the law at that time, an appeals court judge overturned the jury’s decision. Dr. Morgentaler was sentenced to prison but the outcry was so great that he was eventually released. And the centers funded by the provincial government-flourished despite the federal law.

The women’s movement invited Dr. Morgentaler to set up a Toronto-based clinic but the clinic was raided within days and temporarily closed down. However the 1984 trial against three clinic doctors resulted in an acquittal on charges of conspiracy to procure a miscarriage.

The anti-choice then organized a week of actions as a way of pressuring the government to issue an injunction against the clinic. They bussed in students from Catholic schools, mobilizing about a thousand demonstrators. Pro-choice organizers called on the women’s movement to counter the protesters and 6,000-8,000 supporters turned out.

It was this mobilization that encouraged the province to simply pursue its legal challenge, leaving the clinic to operate. During that time the women’s movement maintained a system of clinic defense in the face of anti-choice harassment.

In 1985 the Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously rejected the jury acquittal and sent the case to the Canadian Supreme Court. And this was the case that overturned the law just a year ago.

It became obvious that the Toronto­ based movement needed to link up with pro-choice forces throughout Canada. Activists developed the strategy of a cross-country tribunal campaign to put Canada’s abortion law on trial.

The campaign was kicked off in Vancouver in January, 1985. Four hundred attended the tribunal, hearing testimony from fifteen women who experienced self-induced illegal abortions before 1%9 or who suffered the difficulties of obtaining an abortion in Canada under the law. Misinformation, personal humiliation at the hands of doctors, lack of professional counselling and delay by doctors in making referrals to the therapeutic abortion committees were the most common problems cited.

As the tribunals were held in major cities throughout Canada evidence mounted that the federal law denied women the right to decide when, and if, they will bear children. It was also a discriminatory law, one that was applied differently to women, depending on their wealth, education, race, language and proximity to urban centers. The hearings demonstrated in a dramatic way the total inadequacy of the law but also illustrated the breadth of support for a woman’s right to choose abortion.

A number of actions emphasized trade union support for overturning the law. In the fall of 1985 Dr. Morgentaler spoke to the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL) meeting about the stakes in the court appeal. To demonstrate their support for the issue, the OFL responded by picketing in front of the courthouse. The federation was also key in opening a second clinic in 1986. At a press conference, seven speakers-including a representative of the OFL -pledged their organizations’ support. (Other speakers included OCAC, Canadian Abortion Rights Action League-CARAL, the New Democratic Party, and the Young Women’s Christian Association.) Representatives from sixty organizations backed up the seven spokespeople. Among them were the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) and the United Electrical Workers (UE).

Labor was clearly key to mobilizing and sustaining public support. The fall1987 pro-choice demonstration, as the Supreme Court was hearing the arguments of the case, was supported by three major unions, the Canadian Auto Workers, the United Electrical Workers, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In publicizing the action, the United Steel Workers placed a full-page ad in a major Toronto paper.

Another important mobilizing force has been the annual International Women’s Day action in Toronto. It attracts thousands of participants. Support from the Ontario Federation of Labor and Canadian Labor Congress is an important mechanism through which individual unions endorse, contribute and work on coalition demands-and prominent among them is the right of women to make their own reproductive choices. And last year, when the law was overturned, it was the Canadian Labor Congress Women’s Committee Conference in Ottawa that organized the first demonstration celebrating the victory. When the decision was announced conference participants marched to Parliament Hill, demonstrating “Yes to Choice, No to Free Trade.”

What’s Next?

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has promised to introduce a new law on abortion sometime before the end of his term. Our response is “No new abortion law.” Nearly one hundred organizations, including the Ontario Federation of Labor, are on record against the introduction of any new legislation.

We recognize that any law introduced by the Conservative government will try to rob us of our victory by placing restrictions on the right to choose. We know, too, that those restrictions will bear down hardest on young women, women from rural areas, immigrant women, women whose first language is not English, poor women, women of color.

Currently OCAC and other mass-action reproductive rights organizations in English-speaking Canada have linked up with Quebec organizations, forming a network to coordinate activity against any attempts at recriminalization. This includes both organizing demonstrations as well as campaigning against any attempt to restrict access to abortion.

Public education is key to continuing to alert Canadians that although we have won a victory, that victory is not secure. Choice can’t be exercised if provinces don’t provide facilities for abortion. One of the most important aspects of our campaign is also linking the right to abortion with the right to have the medical procedure completely covered by the healthcare system.

There is also a broad understanding of the need to defend the clinics. For instance, when the right-wing “Operation Rescue” decided to target the Toronto clinics last October, a pro-choice emergency response turned out two hundred demonstrators.

As a socialist-feminist, I find many activists are strengthened in their determination to fight for access to abortion through seeing how central the regulation of women’s sexuality and reproduction is to the state, the Church, and even to the medical establishment.

Abortion symbolizes much of what the right hates and fears from feminism. I think it’s clear that the attempt to roll back abortion rights has become the cutting edge of the right-wing social agenda. And central to women’s sub&ordination is the state’s capacity to control whether, when and under what circumstances women are to bear children. This is a political program women must challenge. Fortunately we have quite a few allies.

January-February 1989, ATC 18

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