Silenced Histories: Accessing Abortion in Alberta, 1969 to 1988

By Shannon Ingram

Two years following the 100th celebration of Canadian confederation in 1967, the Omnibus Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed on May 14th, 1969 by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that partially lifted the strict criminal sanctions regarding abortion nationwide. [1] The decades that followed the passing of, what many deemed, “the monumental omnibus bill” was no more liberating for women’s bodily autonomy than prior to the passing of the bill.

Therapeutic Abortion Committees or TACs were established across Canada following the partial decriminalization of abortion in 1969. The TAC maintained that a minimum of three medical professionals had to be present to regulate the number of abortions performed on women in hospital settings. The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, conducted in 1969, showed evidence of this increased attention by medical professionals and government. Each therapeutic abortion required the woman to fill out a standardized individual report, including such information as, “[the woman’s] marital status, age, province of residence… [and recommendations for or against] sterilization.”[2] The Therapeutic Abortion Survey, initiated by the Federal Department of Justice and Welfare, was submitted by hospitals who both had accredited Therapeutic Abortion Committees and who performed therapeutic abortions. The criteria for sterilization or recommendations for other forms of birth control was left to the discretion of the referring doctor and the TACs, and in many cases, went against the woman’s wishes. And while the standardized individual report case forms estimated the number of women across Canada seeking abortion services, it also implicitly suggested that some women were suitable for motherhood and some women were not. Ultimately, this decision was more times than not left in the hands of government and medical professionals regulating and problematizing the female body, under the auspices of a more liberalized era of reproductive choice.

Despite the limited reproductive autonomy that many women had during the twentieth-century, physicians were dependent on their female patients to not only increase their knowledge of the female body, but also to understand the various methods used by women to procure abortions outside of medical institutions prior to the partial decriminalization of abortion in 1969. Canadian historian Wendy Mitchinson has analyzed the views of medical practitioners towards female bodies from the years 1900 to 1950 and argued that, “Much of the information physicians had about attempted means of abortion came from the women patients.”[3] Further, Mitchinson goes on to state that women were taking a number of different abortifacients including, “quinine, castor oil, ergot…salts, [and] lead pills” as well as inserting foreign objects into their vagina [used] as a means of controlling their own reproduction.[4] And while some women have historically attempted to exercise control over their bodies, the professionalization of physicians during the twentieth-century, only further increased attention on women’s reproductive lives and complicated reproductive rights during the period between partial decriminalization and full decriminalization in Canada. Reflecting back on this history and celebrating those past achievements of women’s social, political, and in this case, health activism reminds us of the ongoing need to recognize the complexities of women’s lives in the history of the Canadian West.

The conference on the history of women’s political and social activism in the Canadian West held this past October in Edmonton, Alberta generated a lively discussion on the memories of accessing reproductive health services nationwide and the contemporary challenges to obtaining reproductive autonomy. Questions arose following the end of the panel on reproductive activism and represented the ongoing controversies that surround the history and contemporary interpretations of reproductive rights in Canada. Many questions addressed the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of youths, activist efforts by individuals against access to abortion services, and the experiences of thousands of Indigenous women and differently abled bodies across Canada who were forcibly sterilized without consent. It reminds us of the importance of women’s rights, and the fragility of those achievements without sustained activism. More importantly, the shared memories from the participants and those who chose not to share, further speaks to the ongoing importance of individual voices to the multifaceted history of abortion in Canada.

Shannon Ingram is a graduate assistant with University of Lethbridge’s Centre for Oral History and Tradition.  Her work examines the grassroots activism of women in Alberta in their efforts to secure reproductive health services, particularly birth control and abortion.

[1] John Turner, “Omnibus Bill: A new era in Canada,” interview by Peter Loucks, The World at Six, August 26th, 1969, accessed 9th January, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/omnibus-bill-a-new-era-in-canada.  

[2] “History of the Therapeutic Abortion Survey,” Statistics Canada, last modified 21st August, 2009, http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb-bmdi/document/3209_D1_T9_V7-eng.pdf.

[3] Wendy Mitchinson, Body Failure: Medical Views of Women, 1900-1950, (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 165.

[4] Mitchinson, 165.

One thought on “Silenced Histories: Accessing Abortion in Alberta, 1969 to 1988

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of January 22, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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