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Celebrating and continuing the struggle for reproductive justice

Darren Edgar

January 29, 2013

With snow-covered streets on a rainy winter Monday evening in downtown Toronto, a few hundred people filled-to-overflowing the seats of the Innis Town Hall on the University of Toronto campus to celebrate the struggle that repealed Canada’s abortion law and to reinvigorate the struggle for reproductive justice today.
The event, billed “25 Years Since the Morgentaler Decision”, took place on January 28 and was organized by the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, UofT Medical Students for Choice and Arts for Choice. The evening began with a panel of five speakers, followed by a screening of the documentary The Life and Times of Henry Morgentaler.
The first speaker was Jillian Bardsley, a second-year medical student at UofT representing a new generation of reproductive justice activists who have only ever known abortion to be legal in their lifetimes. Being a self-described student of history as well as science, she appreciatively acknowledged the work of activists before her and shared numerous statistics, including that one in three women in North America has had an abortion and that one in four pregnancies in Canada ends in abortion—making it clear abortion is so commonplace that it is bound to effect at least some of the women in our lives, making it an issue of importance for us all. Bardsley also mentioned the surprising fact that only half of medical schools in Canada include teaching about abortion in their curriculums and that this, combined with the fact that most abortion services are conducted by medical practitioners over the age of 50, means there’s a very real concern for decreasing access to abortion in the future due to a lack of trained medical professionals. Encouragingly, Bardsley and some of her cohorts in Medical Students for Choice UofT have successfully campaigned to have their faculty once again include the teaching of the medical aspects of abortion—not just the theory or history—in the curriculum of second-year students beginning next year.
Former Toronto Star columnist, Michele Landsberg, spoke next. She recounted and read from a column she had written in 1983 in order to point out the ridiculousness of the situation then for women seeking abortion in Canada. Instead of society being comprised of a male-dominated ruling class which had decided women shouldn’t have control over their bodies and reproductive lives by denying access to abortion except in “medically necessary” circumstances to be determined by a panel of three male doctors, none of whom knew the personal history of the patient but whom were charged with judging her, Landsberg flipped the script in her column and asked us to imagine a society ruled by women who determined that male masturbation should be outlawed because the millions of sperm “wasted” with such activity each contained the vital essence necessary for human life and that only an all-female panel of doctors would be allowed to judge whether any man should be allowed to masturbate, while it would remain illegal for all other men. The audience noticeably enjoyed this mental exercise and Landsberg’s point was well made: none other than the patient seeking abortion herself should be allowed to decide whether she receives the procedure or not.
Angela Robertson, Director of Equity and Community Engagement at Women’s College Hospital, reminded us of the many recent attacks on reproductive justice by the Harper government, at home and abroad. These attacks have seen the Tories try to further restrict a woman’s right to choose with continual anti-choice motions or bills that are increasingly masquerading as helping women—from Bill C-510 against “coerced abortion”, to Motion 408 against “discrimination against women through sex-selection abortion.” But these attacks haven’t just been against women in Canada, Quebec and on First Nations reserves; women in developing countries have also found themselves at the sharp end of the Harper government’s anti-choice agenda when, in 2010, Canada’s G8 Child and Maternal Health Initiative would not include funding for abortion services. Robertson noted that 70,000 women in the developing world die every year from unsafe abortions—a statistic that speaks volumes about the Harper government’s racist and sexist attitude towads global maternal health.
Founding publisher of, Judy Rebick, spoke next. She reminisced about how she became involved in the struggle for abortion rights in Canada, she recounted how Dr. Henry Morgentaler became involved in the same struggle, and she shared numerous anecdotes from her interactions with Morgentaler over the course of those struggles and the years since. Rebick called Morgentaler “a true Canadian hero” and highlighted that many people—even those who didn’t take a strong position on the struggle for abortion rights—saw him as such. Rebick also mentioned the many debates among the women involved in the struggle, recognizing that these are to be expected when building a broad-based coalition of activists. One of these debates was whether or not women in the movement should even be working with Dr. Morgentaler to challenge the abortion laws because he is a man; thankfully, this argument was defeated by women who recognized that abortion rights are not just a women’s issue but a class issue. Beside this, Dr. Morgentaler was the only doctor at the time willing to risk his career, health and life by putting himself forward and actually conducting the procedures.
Carolyn Egan, President of the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council and socialist, was the final panelist to speak. Picking up on what the previous speakers had said, Egan spoke to the heart of the issue: even if it’s illegal, women will still seek abortions. But while wealthy women will always be able to access safe abortion services in private clinics or travel to gain access to them if these services are not offered in their locality, it is working class women who are punished by the lack of choice. As Egan pointed out, this was the case in 1982 and it’s still the case today wherever abortion access is limited, such as in Prince Edward Island, where there is nowhere for women safely to have an abortion on the island, or in New Brunswick, where women have to pay for clinic abortion services—both of these circumstances being contraventions of the Canada Health Act. The lack of free abortion clinics maintains the historical, and class-based, inequality around abortion rights and serves to remind us that our struggle for reproductive justice and equal access for all women is far from over. Thankfully, Egan also reminded us of the successful strategy that overturned Canada’s abortion law twenty-five years ago.
After having successfully undermined the abortion law in Quebec, Dr. Morgentaler agreed it was time to do the same in Ontario in an effort to have Canada’s abortion law overturned entirely, so he opened a clinic in downtown Toronto, on Harbord Street. But in doing this he recognized that he couldn’t wage a successful campaign on his own—that victory would require a mass movement. And after many heated debates among abortion rights activists a massive, broad-based movement was steadily built: first among the women’s movement and then among the labour movement. It was this broadening and deepening of the struggle by women for abortion rights with the working class which brought victory in Quebec and would ultimately prove crucial for victory in Ontario and for women across the country.
It is with this history and this strategy in mind that activists fighting today for reproductive justice—including free and equal access to abortion services—can take inspiration and be encouraged to continue what many incredible activists before them fought for so bravely. And while the struggle continues, we should all be heartened because in attendance for this event were some of the many unnamed activists who played a part of this historic struggle and alongside them were many young people who have learned these lessons and are willing to take on responsibility for building upon the victories of their forebears and renewing the struggle for reproductive justice, for women’s liberation and for a better world for all.

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