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Monday, January 28, 2013

Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision

Twenty five years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s law on abortion, finding it violated a woman’s right to life, liberty and security of the person. Canada's experience with the decriminalization of abortion proves that women can be trusted to make decisions regarding our lives, health and families without State interference or the threat of criminal sanction. 

Dr. Henry Morgentaler already knew this in 1968 when he began performing abortions in defiance of the law. He also knew that sending women to have their abortions approved by a therapeutic abortion committee, as the law of the day demanded, was an unnecessary barrier that wasted time and risked our lives and health. Finally, Dr. Morgentaler knew that doctors could be trusted to practice medicine safely and effectively and in the best interests of their patients.

Evidence supports this perspective. The Guttmacher Institute, a rigorous research organization in the area of sexual and reproductive health, finds abortion persists regardless of its legal status. The rates are highest and maternal health outcomes are poorest where there are restrictive laws around abortion and where contraception is difficult to access. Laws against abortion do not reduce the number of abortions, nor do they make women safer. In Africa where most abortions are illegal, the abortion rate is 29 per 1000 women of childbearing age. Complications from unsafe abortion result in 13% of maternal deaths worldwide. In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, the abortion rate in Canada was about 14 per 1000 women of childbearing age. Our outcomes are better than those of countries with legal restrictions.

In Canada, although abortion is no longer a criminal matter, it is not unregulated. Doctors abide by Canadian Medical Association guidelines. Ninety percent of abortions are performed on request in the first twelve weeks and ninety-eight percent are performed in the first sixteen weeks. The procedure is safe and Canada has one of the world’s lowest maternal mortality rates from abortion. The CMA regulates abortion responsibly just as it does every other medical procedure. Only 1.9 percent of abortions happen over twenty-one weeks, and these are performed only in cases of severe fetal anomaly or where the life of the woman is at risk.
As the Guttmacher Institute notes, for health outcomes to be optimized, legalization must be accompanied by a sustained commitment and dedicated resources to areas such as comprehensive sexuality education and doctor training. In Canada, there is still more to do. A University of Ottawa report finds long wait times in Ontario, in part because only one in six hospitals in Canada offers abortions. Access is severely limited in rural and northern areas and abortions are unavailable in Prince Edward Island. In New Brunswick, women must still seek the approval of two doctors to have their abortion covered under the provincial health plan. This flagrant violation of the Morgentaler decision persists under successive intransigent provincial governments and federal governments willing to turn a blind eye.

Since 1987, there have been about 45 attempts to recriminalize or restrict abortion through the introduction of Private Members Bills or Motions. Not one has passed, nor would one likely survive a Charter challenge. Passage of such a bill or motion would be a blow to women’s rights akin to retracting the right to vote or the right to own property.

In a report to the United Nations, The Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health describes laws restricting abortion as an abuse of state power. Such laws “infringe human dignity by restricting the freedoms to which individuals are entitled under the right to health, particularly in respect of decision-making and bodily integrity,” mirroring the finding of our own Supreme Court. The report urges all countries to end such restrictions.

Those reluctant to end restrictive laws can look to Canada as a role model. For this, we can express our gratitude to Dr. Morgentaler and all who helped him in this work.  



Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Morgentaler Decision

The 25th anniversary of the Morgentaler Decision is almost upon us, and the tributes are beginning to surface. I want to share a few with you. Have a look at the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada's tribute to Dr. Morgentaler and leave a message if you are so inspired. Joyce Arthur of ARCC has also written some great stuff lately on the benefits of decriminalization.

When I am thinking about Dr. Morgentaler or writing about him, I often refer to an excellent biography about him by Catherine Dunphy called Morgentaler: A Difficult Hero. To me, it is the definitive text. And I was reminded this morning of a great interview with Dr. Morgentaler with the National Review of Medicine that he did on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the decision available on line.

There are tributes happening across Canada. In Calgary, there is a showing of the new documentary Status Quo? to celebrate the decision. Although the doc deals with issues beyond reproductive rights and gets us to think about all the unfinished business of feminism in Canada, it is a good choice for this day. One section of the film is dedicated to Dr. Morgentaler and the current day fight in New Brunswick, which has been the subject of this blog before. One of my favourite moments in the film is footage of Judy Rebick getting in the face of someone attempting to attack Dr. Morgentaler. She is absolutely fierce, and it is this ferocity that was necessary to have abortion decriminalized.

Many people like Judy Rebick stood with Dr. Morgentaler to change the laws in Canada. He didn't do it alone, but he was the face of the movement, the one that risked it all, the one that went to jail. He risked his own safety to keep women safe. To understand exactly what he accomplished, the best thing to do is actually read the Supreme Court verdict. It is inspiring.

My postings are getting fewer and farther between lately. I often feel I've said everything I have to say about abortion. With the temporary quiet given to us by election losses on the far right, I've not been prodded into blogging by idiotic relics of patriarchy blathering about taking my rights away. The anniversary will bring out the anti-choicers and their whines of "we need a law." Actually, we don't. Canada's experience has proven this. Nevertheless, attempts to eat away at women's rights will continue with things like Motion 408, which has to be at least the forty fifth attempt by anti-choicers to criminalize or restrict abortion since the Morgentaler decision. They've lost every battle, and they will continue to do so because women are not going to give up our rights. Unlike me, they never seem to get bored. So I can't either. And neither can you. I've said it so many times, I almost feel I have to quote myself. Without control of our bodies, women are not free.

And to Dr. Morgentaler: You showed me the way before I even knew I was searching for it, before I knew how to challenge power or speak truth to it, before I found my own voice. You showed me what my rights were. You imagined a reality for me that I couldn't yet see for myself and you fought to get it for me. You taught me what it was to be feminist. Thank you.