Dr Henry Morgentaler's Legacy

I hail from New Brunswick originally. I left for university, and by the end of my degree, I had decided to remain. At the time, the government was growing more conservative, and one of their great bugaboos was the number of people moving out — their population was essentially in free-fall.

Granted, the population wasn’t exactly huge to begin with. It had declined from 738,133 in 1996, to 729,498 in 2001 — a loss of 1.2%. It stagnated through 2006 — 729,997. The government started making noises about enticing emigrants, about stabilizing the job market and doing something about its flagging tech sector; there was a big to-do about this decline, to be sure. And the population began to swell again, to 751,171 in 2011.

In late 2013, another population decline — a mere 1000 person shortfall — caused another huge stir, such that the “Progressive” Conservative legislature under leader David Alward lamented the possibility of only seeing his grandchildren through Skype.

In the wake of that first scare, followed by the more recent revelation that outmigration is skyrocketing, it’s no surprise that the conservative New Brunswick political scene voted for the “Medical Services Payment Act”, Regulation 84-20, which had a bomb in it for abortion services. Now, throughout the province, abortions are no longer funded by the government as mandated by Health Canada, unless certified by TWO doctors as being “medically necessary”. How else are you going to swell your numbers except to force women to give birth?

As a result of this abrogation of women’s right to bodily autonomy, the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton — founded by the legendary Dr. Henry Morgentaler himself — is forced to close.

The rules of the clinic were set up such that nobody who needed abortion services would be turned away under any circumstances, and because the government stiffed them on the bills and they took a huge loss last year, they have to close up shop.

Back in 2009, Carl Urquhart, a Conservative MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly, the Canadian equivalent of a congressman) suggested with regard to the population decline that women should be making more babies, a statement he posted on Facebook that he’d later walked back. He was especially chastised for this in light of the province’s growing teenage pregnancy problem.

That’s about as transparent a reasoning as you can get for Conservatives’ anti-choice efforts. It was a refreshing moment of honesty from that party.

And this huge success in the fight to control what people can and cannot do with their reproductive organs comes just shy of a year after Dr. Henry Morgentaler — founder of the clinic — died of a heart attack. Morgentaler’s efforts practically single-handedly won the fight for safe, legal abortion nation-wide in 1988 with his appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they overturned the whole of the Canadian abortion law as unconstitutional. The man was a lion for women’s rights, human rights, and reproductive freedom. And his legacy is being rent before our eyes.

Women can still theoretically get abortions in hospitals — providing they get two doctors to sign off on the “medically necessary” waiver — but as this map shows, access to abortion didn’t come with its newfound legality. When your government tightly controls the demand for babies, you can force the supply by restricting access to any choice but becoming a baby-factory.

You might understandably make the mistake that the “demand” is actually for abortions, but then you’d be misunderstanding the directionality of these laws. In the fight for women’s bodily autonomy, the uterus is actually the supply, and the government apparently gets to make the demands.

For what it’s worth, here’s the state of the struggle for abortion rights through Canada. You’ll note that almost no place in Canada actually has access to an abortion clinic or hospital within a reasonable travel time, and that the gestation limits are terribly restrictive in a number of cases — some as low as 12 weeks, like New Brunswick. Many provinces have absolutely no access to abortions, medical or otherwise.

This fight is hardly won, despite it being unconstitutional to restrict abortions, and despite it being both legal and defined explicitly by Health Canada.

Dr Henry Morgentaler's Legacy

20 thoughts on “Dr Henry Morgentaler's Legacy

  1. 1

    What the flying f… I hail from Québec, and I thought that, due to the ridiculously heavy Catholic influence on our history, we were somewhat behind the rest of Canada when it came to women’s health. And now I discover it’s the other way around! That’s an eye opener. Thanks Jason.

  2. 2

    Wow, I thought that Quebec was representative of the laws in Canada. Who knew?

    @ oualawouzou – I married a Quebecois and moved there and I’ve always found Quebec to be strong about women’s issues, certainly they are in no way behind what I had been used to in the Northeastern U.S., and probably ahead in some regards, although I don’t know how that sort of thing is measured and I usually shy away from a “better or worse” comparison of places. I suspect, from what older people have said to me, that would not have been the case pre-Révolution tranquille. (I’m long divorced and back in the U.S., btw.)

    I hope this isn’t inappropriate: Me, Mom and Morgentaler. I do know something of the history of Dr. Morgentaler, but his name always winds up putting me in mind of the band.

    It’s a shame to hear about the government thinking that restricting abortion access is the solution to declining population. It’s probably not even a very effective measure if people are emigrating. Improving the unemployment rate, which appears to be above the national average, would probably have a better effect.

    Jason, are you bilingual?

  3. 3

    If you’re looking for ways to help, someone’s put together a list. As Peggy Cooke puts it,

    Now more than ever, New Brunswick progressives and their allies across Canada need to mobilize to force the government’s hand. We should not have had to accept this situation for so long, and now that the clinic is closed, we will no longer do so. This is a matter of life or death for women across the Maritimes.

  4. 4

    The stats are not quite right. In BC you just go to a Doctor – even in a walk in clinic – and the abortion will be performed without fuss. A family member did so w/o any problems.

  5. 7

    kraut @3:

    In BC you just go to a Doctor – even in a walk in clinic – and the abortion will be performed without fuss. A family member did so w/o any problems.

    A lot of it depends on where you are. BC is probably the second-best province in Canada at providing abortions, per-capita, but even there only a quarter of hospitals provide access and60% of those that don’t will not give a referral or more information. Rural access is our country’s hidden shame, with the number of providers dropping at a shockingly rapid rate.

    While we’re more politically liberal about abortion up here in Canada, the situation on the ground is only marginally better than our southern cousin.

  6. 9

    fourth of july:
    Oui, je suis bilingue, mais je n’as pas grand chance a pratiquer mon francais. I’m getting seriously rusty. I can still understand it, much better than I can converse. It’s probable any time I’m saying anything that isn’t something I recently heard someone else say, that there’s a grammar mistake or ten in it.

  7. 10

    That is really disappointing. I had not heard that the clinic in Fredericton had closed. I am from Fredericton but have not lived there for quite a long time, and I am afraid I simply do not pay attention to what is going on back home nearly often enough.

  8. 11

    Wow, this is embarrassing. I had no idea this was happening, from my BC enclave. I know I have an exaggerated sense of security that restricting abortion rights is politically costly in Canada.

    (@ Jason: 4 mistakes in your sentence! :p)

  9. 12

    Leaving aside the lack of accents and cedillas, I assume, maudell? Not surprised. And the French I learned was kinda pidgin, from Bathurst, with a lot of heavy Acadian influence.

    Almost ten years ago I passed through Quebec briefly, and I found that even then, even not terribly far removed from my French learnings, we had trouble understanding each other. It’s only gone downhill from there.

  10. 13

    Prince Edward Island is also very a conservative place. We were the last province to legalize Sunday shopping and gay marriage. We are also the only province without abortion access at all. Notice the small ‘c’ in conservative above. It is only the virtually non-existent NDP party that pushes for abortion access, the Liberal and Conservative politicians prefer to ignore the issue as much as possible.

    Most do not make any public comments on their stance for fear of upsetting some of part of their constituency. Without any otherwise viable pro-choice candidates, progress is difficult.

  11. 14

    That’s not far from where I was living, in Miramichi from between 2005-2011.

    I couldn’t help but notice one aspect of small-c conservative thinking when I was there. So many residents of Miramichi would refer to a place by what USED to be there, rather than what was there at the time.

  12. 15

    Wow I was completely ignorant as to the state of affairs for access to abortion in this country. Toronto blinders I guess. Even the numbers in Ontario (33 of 194 (17%)) of hospital access is horrible… never mind places like the far north and the east coast. Sickening.

  13. 18

    Even in a major city like Ottawa, there are doctors who are refusing not only abortions, but even any form of contraception other than “natural family planning” – http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Some+Ottawa+doctors+refuse+prescribe+birth+control+pills/9450917/story.html

    Also, Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic schools have used my tax dollars to bus students to Ottawa to participate in the annual anti-choice “March for Life”. (If I might be permitted a bit of advertising: CFI Ottawa will be participating in a pro-choice counter protest this year on May 8 – please join us if you are in the vicinity http://www.meetup.com/CFI-ottawa/events/165579942.)

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