Landmark Morgentaler decision legalized abortion 25 years ago

by | Jan 28, 2013 | News

On June 16, 2005, the University of Western Ontario conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL MAYNE ON FLICKR

On June 16, 2005, the University of Western Ontario conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon Dr. Henry Morgentaler PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL MAYNE ON FLICKR

By Andrew Russell

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the historic R. v. Morgentaler case that legalized abortion in Canada.

On Jan. 28, 1988, in a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada issued the landmark ruling that said the abortion provision under the Criminal Code was unconstitutional.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a holocaust survivor and Canadian physician, was involved in the case because he broke the country’s abortion laws in 1969 by opening Canada’s first abortion clinic.

After that, he began his lifelong battle as a pro-choice advocate.

Abortion rights advocates are planning to commemorate the work of Dr. Morgentaler and the historic ruling with modest celebrations across the country.

The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) is hosting an event Monday at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall on the topic of reproductive justice and the importance of the Morgentaler decision.

“The most important change is the (abortion) decision now rests in the hands of women. It no longer rests in the hands of the courts,” Carolyn Egan a founding member of the OCAC, told Humber News. “It gives women across Canada the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Despite the historic ruling, access to abortion remains unequal in provinces across Canada.

According to the CBC, abortions are only performed in two cities in the entire province of Saskatchewan – Saskatoon and Regina.

Egan said that currently in Prince Edward Island there are no abortion facilities, forcing women to go out of province. “In New Brunswick 700 out of 1000 abortions are paid for out of pocket by women travelling from outside the province. This is a severe disadvantage for low income women,” he said.

The event begins with a panel of five speakers which includes Carolyn Egan, journalist Judy Rebick and medical-student, activist Jillian Bardsley.

After the panel, there will be a screening of the documentary “The Life and Times of Henry Morgentaler.”

Jillian Bardsley, a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto and co-president of Toronto chapter of Medical Students for Choice, has a personal connection to tonight’s event.

“The decision is turning 25 and so am I.  I’m celebrating the fact that women of my generation have had access to abortion,” Bardsley told Humber News.

She said that despite the victory of R v. Morgentaler there still remains a significant educational challenge on the subject of abortion.

“Half of Canadian medical schools don’t teach about abortion. U of T has one two-hour course on ethics and legality of abortion but we don’t learn about the (medical issues). Our group hopes to change this,” said Bardsley.

While many Canadians are celebrating the anniversary, anti-abortion advocates are calling for renewed action towards ending abortion.

“Twenty-five years of Morgentaler is 25 years too long,” said Rebecca Richmond, executive director of National Campus Life Network. “It’s a sobering moment for our group and myself. It allows us to recommit ourselves to end abortion.”

The abortion debate remains highly polarized at all levels of government.

In October 2012, the Ontario Liberals accused the Conservatives of attempting the to reopen the abortion debate.

According to the Canadian Press, Conservative MPPs John O’Toole, Randy Hillier and Rick Nicholls all sponsored an announcement by Campaign Life aimed at defunding abortion – a move the Liberals saw as a clear attempt to reopen the debate.

And last spring Prime Minister Stephen Harper was forced to distance himself from comments made by Tory MP Stephen Woodworth.