marxism 2012 program notes: how abortion rights were won in canada

One of the most exciting and illuminating sessions I attended at the 2012 Marxism Conference was a history of how abortion rights were won - and are threatened - in both the UK and Canada. I am honoured that some of my friends and comrades from the peace movement were integral to the abortion-rights struggle in Canada.

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"Never Going Back!" Abortion Rights: How Women Won the Right
May 27, 2012
Judith Orr, Michelle Robidoux (with honourable mention to Carolyn Egan, in the audience)

Judith Orr
Feminist, socialist, author, editor of Socialist Worker (UK)

I thought I'd start by explaining what the situation is in the UK, in terms of the law. Not everyone is aware of what is legal.

UK abortion law

In 1967, the Abortion Act was passed, which made abortion legal if two doctors decided it would be against the woman's mental or physical health to carry the pregnancy. This makes it the only procedure in the UK that you need two doctors to sign off on. You don't need two doctors to OK it if you need your appendix out or your tonsils out or anything else. But if you need an abortion, you need two doctors to OK it on the grounds of your mental or physical health. This is still true.

In the years since 1967, there has been a shrinking time limit of the time limit at which a pregnancy can be terminated. It's now 24 weeks.

Some years ago, there was an attempt by anti-abortion Tories to bring the time limit down, because, they said, medical advances meant fetuses could live outside the womb at younger ages. The British Medical Association and all kinds of committees met and studied this for more than a year, and came to the conclusion that it was not true - and the medical time limit remained the same. For fetal abnormalities, you can have an abortion later than that, but those are very unusual circumstances, and rarely used. The vast majority of abortions in England happen before 12 weeks.

Also, the right to abortion was never extended to Ireland, including Northern Ireland, even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK. The 1967 Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, because the Catholic and Protestant Churches have two things that they agree on there. One is on being homophobic. And the other is being against abortion. And so the British government never forced them to accept legalized abortion.

I am person of interest in that circumstance. I had a friend who had to travel to London, as a teenager, for an abortion. On her way back, it was (at that time), a 21-hour journey from London to Belfast. By the time she returned, she was hemorrhaging, and had to go into hospital - and had to lie about what had happened. The doctors knew full well, of course - and, to be fair, they cared for her. But if she had had access in her local hospital, she would have gotten immediate after care, and there wouldn't have been any problems.

And thousands and thousands and thousands of women travel from Ireland to England for abortions still.

The anti-choice-by-stealth agenda

What's interesting right now about abortion rights in the UK is, with the Tory government having come in, there's been a shift in the agenda, rightwards. On one level, it's almost imperceptible. On another level, it's been bludgeoned.

It's always Tory private member bills that are trying to change laws. No government is going to actually challenge the abortion laws, because there is a clear majority support for legal abortion among the public. So they do it through the back door, whether it's trying to roll back the time limit, or chip away at certain aspects of reproductive rights. This is what's been happening.

One rabidly right-wing MP pays lip service to women's rights: "I'm not anti-abortion. I just want women to make a fully informed choice." She uses the language of women's empowerment to put through a disgusting right-wing agenda. It's a sign of our strength that she has to do that! Because she can't just come out and say, "I want to stop women from having abortions". So that's a victory for our side in a way, but it can be quite dangerous, because it's insidious.

She claims that abortion clinics have a financial incentive to coerce women into terminating pregnancies. Of course this is completely untrue. The clinics are funded by the National Health Service. They don't make money. There is no financial incentive for them no matter what their patients do. But this MP claims that there is, and calls for so-called independent groups, including anti-abortion groups,to offer mandatory counseling in clinics - funded publicly, of course.

It's a lie that's been cooked up to make abortion providers look evil, portray them as taking advantage of vulnerable women. So phony counseling groups - which (as in Canada and the US) are just covers for anti-abortion groups that employ terrible coercive tactics - would be funded publicly to do their work in actual NHS clinics!

There was such an outcry about this that everybody, including the leading Conservatives, voted against it. But... they had a committee study it. And that committee could change how the counseling guidelines work - without needing more legislation.

These are the kinds of dangers that we are facing now, these "back door" threats to choice. Let's face it, when women go to clinics for abortions, they've already made their choice. They don't need mandatory counseling. They're not children. It's insulting to women's agency.

And this is only one of the many types of threats being put forth. Some are almost laughable and will never go through, such as celibacy classes in school. But - get this - only for girls! These are the kinds of things I read about happening in America. And we're horrified that they are trying to do it in the UK.

There was a manufactured scare that clinics were performing so-called illegal abortions. The illegality was that doctors were pre-signing forms, to ease the burden of having two doctors sign off on every procedure. This is done all the time, so that if someone needs a procedure immediately, there won't be a delay while another doctor can perform an exam and sign the form.

The Conservative Minister of Health sent in hundreds of checkers to investigate clinics - seized their paperwork and their computers. People who should have been performing health and safety checks were instead harassing clinics in this moral panic about pre-signed forms. They spent one million pounds on this.

The current "scare" is about sex-selected abortions, which is also obviously a racist notion: the idea that there are "certain communities" that are aborting female fetuses. They found no evidence of this happening in any significant numbers. But they used the language of feminism and women's oppression, talking about a "holocaust of girls".

Another tactic was to claim women need to be "fully informed" by submitting to mandatory ultrasound - and mandatory audio ultrasound, to hear the fetal heartbeat.

These are the things they throw out there. They put a scare in everyone, then when they back off, people are so relieved that it's not the original full-strength bill, it's a form of a compromise... and now their rights are chipped away. And it obviously deters women, who may be afraid to terminate a pregnancy, fearing that they'll have to go through this.

Finally, there were some Catholic nurses in Scotland who took a hospital to court. It's already their legal right to opt-out of abortion procedures. But these nurses wanted to opt out of caring for patients post-procedure, and from supervising staff who at other times cared for abortion patients. They lost, it didn't work, but they drove a wedge in, they opened the door, they began legitimizing the idea that abortion is something shameful and dirty. This is something we have to hold up against.

American imports

The ideological attack is: abortions are too easy to get, women get them for frivolous reasons, and therefore we have to control this, we must make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions. It ends up legitimizing some of the most extreme tactics of the anti-abortion camp.

We've seen things in the UK that we had never seen before. For 40 days during Lent, people campaigned outside abortion clinics, praying, holding up disgusting pictures -and filming women as they went into clinics! Sometimes passersby would tell them to fuck off. And we held protests and counter-demonstrations.

The biggest demo was on the last day of Lent. They came out with 300 people, and we had 1,000. It was one of the most militant and brilliant pro-choice demos I've been on for years. Women came up to me and said, "I remember when it was illegal and we're never going back!"

This has reinvigorated the pro-choice movement, especially among younger women who may not have had that awareness before.

There was recently an action by an extreme anti-abortion group, praying on street corners for the "dead children" and such. We surrounded them, shouted at them, made it impossible for them to be seen by anybody else. There are some debates within the pro-choice movement about whether or not to be this aggressive. Our feeling is if you give these people an inch... They must be countered early and strongly.

At the same time, a hactivist obtained health records of thousands of women who had had abortions and was threatening to publicize them. When people get entranced by how social media is going to bring about the revolution, we should remember that these are tools that can be used for reactionary as well as progressive ends.

Re-educate, re-invigorate, re-activate

In the UK, there is a real sense that we have to up our game, that we have to re-educate a whole generation of young women and men about what this all means. People assume it's there if we need it. They don't consciously think about defending it. We have to reach people both going out into colleges and universities, and also into the trade union movements.

We are seeing women's bodies as battlegrounds once again. We see it in all sorts of ways. The whole Conservative agenda - the family has to carry more of the burden, because of the cuts to social state - it all puts women back in the role of family and caregiver, for the elderly, for children. And at the same time, chipping away at abortion rights tells women, This is all you are. You're only here to carry the next generation.

We've got to take this very seriously.

One of my greatest memories in the pro-choice movement in the UK was after a particularly disgusting Tory bill attempting to roll back rights, there was an absolutely massive protest from the unions - after pressure from the rank-and-file. 80,000 people came out to say, "Abortion is a class issue and we have to defend abortion rights." It pushed back the bigots for decades. That demonstration - that show of strength - from the labour movement - held them back for decades.

There is an enormous groundswell of public opinion in our favour. But we can't be complacent that it will always be that way. The Tories will stop at nothing in terms of women's rights. The leaders will look moderate while they let the extremists off the leash.

We have to reinvigorate those networks and say: We are never going back.

Michelle Robidoux
Pro-choice activist, leading member IS Canada

For anyone who knows what's going on in Canada, we could almost be talking about the same country. Change a few names, but there's so much that's similar. I'm going to give an overview of abortion law in Canada, and how we won that battle, and where we are now.

Canadian history

In Canada, before 1969, abortion was illegal and birth control was illegal. It was very, very difficult to even access birth control.

The changes that came in, in Canada in 1969 and in the UK in 1967, that made abortion legal in certain circumstances, was a huge change. It was the result of pressure from the women's movement, from the medical community that saw women being maimed and dying from illegal abortions, that pushed Prime Minister Trudeau to change the law.

But that new law said that a woman could have an abortion if it was approved by a therapeutic abortion committee of three doctors - not two - but similar to the UK's law. That committee had to approve, and only one-third of hospitals in Canada even had these committees. Where they existed, there was no requirement for them to meet and to function. And the decision they made could not be appealed. It was a very tough situation.

This new law sparked resistance almost immediately. In 1970, there was a well-known mobilization that took place from British Columbia to Ottawa called the Abortion Caravan, to try to highlight the injustice of the conditions of this law, it terms of the limited access for women to abortion.

That was the first time that Parliament was shut down, when women chained themselves in the House of Commons protesting the provisions of the law.

The new abortion law was in place through the 1970s. There were numerous attempts to change it, most notably through Committee to Repeal Abortion Law (CARAL) (which later became another CARAL, Canadian Abortion Rights Action League). They attempted to meet and lobby politicians to change the law. But this reasoned approach was not working. As we know, the balance of power doesn't get shifted by reasoned argument.

In the 1980s, if you were in a major city like Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, there was some limited access to abortion, particularly if you were middle class and could afford to pay for the procedure. But if you were a low-income woman, an immigrant, if you lived on a Northern reserve, if you had low English skills, you didn't have that kind of access.

Even the mechanism of access was very difficult. You would have to phone that day to get an appointment, a phone call that had to be made at 8 in the morning and could take an hour or 45 minutes. If you worked in a factory, if you were a student, a teenager, you couldn't spend an hour on the phone. And sometimes if you did manage to do this, when you got through, they were fully booked and you had try again the next day.

For a while the movement tried to do this for women - tried to make the phone calls for women who couldn't do that easily or at all.

Struggles that led to the Morgentaler Decision

There were many important struggles, especially in Quebec, that I don't have time to go into here. I'm going to talk mainly about what went on in Ontario, because that was what led to the Morgentaler Decision.

In 1982, representatives from different organizations got together to discuss what strategy to adopt to try and challenge the law. There were many competing ideas, and much discussion took place about the best route to take. Some groups felt the way forward was for the women's movement to start providing the service themselves. Some people wanted greater and more intensive lobbying. Other people who came from a socialist and trade unionist background - and from the background of the 1960s movements, of course - took a different approach.

They said, when you look around the world, where do women have greater reproductive rights and how did they win them? They looked at the UK, and at Italy, a Catholic country but through the women's movement and trade union movements, people were able to shift the balance of power and to put pressure on governments. And most of all, they looked at Quebec, also Catholic, but the province had better access than anywhere else in Canada. This was the product of a mass movement for change, with the involvement of the unions - and the product of highlighting abortion access as a class issue, uniting men and women together, in a militant campaign to challenge the limits of the law.

In Quebec, with the radicalization that took place through the early 1970s, there was so much pressure from the women's movement, from the sovreigntist movement, that eventually the PQ Government said it would no longer prosecute doctors who provided abortions. They said they would no longer enforce the federal abortion law in Quebec.

In 1975, before the PQ came to power, Dr. Henry Morgentaler was sentenced to 18 months in prison for providing abortions - even though three juries had acquitted him. The courts appealed that ruling, it was overturned, and he was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. He served 10 months before he had a heart attack after being beaten up by anti-Semitic prison guards, and eventually released into a medical facility.

The PQ eventually announced the federal law was not enforceable in Quebec and they were no longer going to prosecute doctors who performed abortions.

So looking at that situation, and based on the perspective of building a mass movement that would unite a broad coalition around a few key demands, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was formed in Toronto. The main demands were: repeal the federal abortion law, legalize free-standing clinics, and provide medically insured abortions.

Dr. Morgentaler opens his Toronto clinic, the movement builds mass support

Dr. Morgentaler agreed to open a clinic in Toronto to challenge the law, and the movement built the mass support around it. Carolyn [Egan] was a founding member of that, so hopefully she will fill in some gaps after I'm done. I wasn't involved at that point. I got involved later - after you won.

OCAC framed the demands in a broad context which would allow people to look at the bigger contradictions, and the question of what choice really means. It's a legal right, of course. But when we talk about choice, we talk about a range of things that are necessary for women to really be able to make choices about their lives.

The right to have a job that can support the kids you want. To be free of harassment. The right to keep your children in your home, to not have them taken away from you - something especially relevant to Aboriginal women and to women with disabilities. The right to live openly as a lesbian. The right to raise children whether or not you are married. The right to employment equity, to child care, to full access to free abortion, birth control services in your community, in your language. This is the way the choice question was framed. These things are all necessary if women are to have the children they want and to decide if, when, and when not to have children.

This was very different from what was happening in the US, where the movement didn't take up these questions.

From there, it was about building broad support. Going into the unions, in particular, was very, very important. There were segments of the women's movement who didn't want this issue raised in the unions at the time, because they felt it would be divisive at a time when women were trying to win things like pay equity. But we pressed forward, and felt it was important that, win or lose, we were going to open the issue, to educate people about what reproductive rights is about.

And to everyone's surprise, the pro-choice position won overwhelmingly. Every major union adopted a pro-choice position. The argument that women will never be equal in society unless we control our reproduction really resonated. This was very significant in terms of building mass support.

The other thing was reaching out to groups representing women of colour, immigrant women, low-income women - groups that were not necessarily seen as part of the women's movement. The right to abortion was not enough. Alone, it left too many women in the background. This touched on the issues of forced and coerced sterilization as well.

The clinic as a symbol of resistance to an unjust law

I can't go into the details of how OCAC organized. But in brief, the clinic opened, it was shut down, three doctors were arrested, all the equipment was removed. At that point, of course, the government was going to pursue charges. The lawyers were saying, let it be, the judges are going to decide this. OCAC argued, no, we have to re-open the clinic. We have to keep building. We have to have a focus. The clinic is a symbol of resistance to an unjust law. We have to open it, and we have to defend it.

The Catholic Church mobilized big time. They had demonstrations of 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 people. OCAC put out a call for an emergency demonstration, people organized in their unions, OCAC drove through neighbourhoods with speakers on the car, asking for people to come out. 10,000 people showed up and marched from Queens Park to the clinic, and said, The people have spoken, the clinic will stay open!

Supreme Court decision, because of the movement

From 1983 to 1988 when the Supreme Court decision came, OCAC argued that we have to be active and we have to be struggling. Without that, the Supreme Court decision would not have been what it was. The Supreme Court decision was a collective victory of all the people who were part of keeping the clinic open, defending it, and everything that went into that.

In 1988, the Supreme Court struck down the abortion law. There now is no abortion law. It is like getting an appendectomy or any other medical procedure a patient needs.

Of course, that didn't last very long. The Tories came back and tried to re-criminalize abortion. But the pro-choice movement didn't demobilize. In 1988, the anti-choice movement mobilized and tried to shut down the clinics. This was from the US, the first "Operation Rescue" movement. We had a pitched battle to move the anti-choice people from the clinic and keep the clinic open. All different activists were there - people from the gay community, labour activists, peace activists, Jack Layton was there.

The police were called in at 9:00 a.m., but they didn't start removing people until 3 in the afternoon. What did they care? They were no friends of women's rights. And again, there were arguments within the movement. "Let the police do their job. We don't want to create a war zone, we don't want to look crazy." But OCAC wanted to show that the community supported the clinics. This was very important to the debates that were happening in Parliament.

From 1988 to 1991, we turned the anti-choice strategy on its head. They were trying to take the mantle of the civil rights movement, saying they were defending the unborn. Where in reality, they were more like the Ku Klux Klan, stopping black kids from going to integrated schools in the US, by keeping women from getting to clinics. We pulled the rug out from under them. And the movement to re-criminalize abortion failed.

We did succeed in stopping the re-criminalization of abortion. But it was very close. It passed the House of Commons, got to the Senate, and we thought, this is it. We're going to have this law. And then it was a vote of 43 senators for and 43 senators against. We didn't even know what that meant!

As it turned out, it meant that it failed. That's why there's no abortion law in this country. It came down to one Senator. She was whipped, but she voted against it.

Just after that, the Morgentaler clinic in Toronto was firebombed. That was the last gasp of a movement that did not speak for the majority. It had lost the fight on the streets and, therefore, in the courts and in the legislature.

Now all they have is stealth

Now the only way they've been able to introduce anti-choice measures is by stealth. Everything Judith talked about is happening here, too. It's the only way they can take it on. Polls show the pro-choice majority is larger than ever.

They're not giving up, of course. But the lessons of how we mobilize, how we build support, how we frame the issue as a class issue, how we do it for ourselves, these lessons still hold. Millions of millions of people across the country feel it was their victory. We drove the anti-choice movement out. We demoralized them. Now when they stand on the street corner with their signs, they get abused.

Of course we must be vigilant. The Harper Tories have revitalized the anti-choice movement. It's the same as in the UK. The zealots are off the leash. Harper can say he's not going after abortion, he can sit back and look moderate, while the backbenchers table these extreme motions. Jason Kenney, who's effectively the Deputy Prime Minister, was one of those anti-choice activists when he was younger, organizing on his college campus in the US.

The anti-choice learned lessons from how we won. They are announcing their own anti-abortion caravan. They think they can reproduce what we did, driving to Ottawa. I don't think they're going to succeed, but the fact that they feel they can try that is significant.

The young women who have been mobilizing against this have been phenomenal. We need to keep mobilizing, and to remember that's how we won that victory in the first place.

Selections from the floor

- Right and access to abortion as the cornerstone of women's equality and freedom

- Parallels between UK and Canadian situation

- Anti-choice movement is determined to roll back abortion rights, and the Conservatives are determined to do the same. The dynamic of Harper pretending he's not anti-choice while they continue to go through the back door is very effective and insidious.

- We have to stay vigilant, but we can't hit the panic button all the time.

- Our debates within our movements are incredibly important. For example, if we hadn't won the debate about allowing a male doctor to open that clinic and put all our support into that clinic - and if we didn't win the debate about not leaving it to lobbying politicians, but building a mass movement in the streets - and if we didn't win the debate on including men - we wouldn't have had those victories. If we hadn't framed the right to abortion as a class issue, if we hadn't won the debate to bring the issue to the unions, none of these victories would have been possible.

- Anti-choice rhetoric often succeeds ideologically. Even some pro-choice people call abortion "a tragedy", rather than a simple fact of women's healthcare. They may not win in court or legislature but they often win the ideological debate. We have to address these debates within our movement. "There are not 'too many' abortions. The right number of abortions is the number of abortions women need."

- Sometimes there is religious bigotry sometimes mixed in the pro-choice movement: anti-Catholic or anti-Muslim sentiment. Another way of dividing us that we must address. Some people believe if we got rid of religion, there would be no anti-choice movement. But the desire to control women's bodies is not only grounded in religion.

- The right to choose extends to all aspects of our lives. The right to wear a hijab is the right to choose. Decouple pro-choice movement from anti-religious sentiments.

- So many young women are getting involved in the pro-choice movement. They grew up with this right, took it for granted, but now are angry that people are trying to take that right away.

- Abortion is a human right. Reproductive rights are human rights.

- Fewer doctors training in termination. Another way of shutting down clinics.

- Even the fear of re-criminalization hurts us all - women afraid to seek help, trying self-induced abortions.

- Women in New Brunswick, who have to pay for abortion, and women in PEI, who have to travel to New Brunswick for abortions, are fed up and agitating for an end to that.

- We will not have women's freedom until we have the end of capitalism. And we will not have the end of capitalism until we have women's freedom. This is at the heart of our vision of society.

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