Parental Rights, Reproductive Rights, and Youth’s Sexuality in Alberta, Then and Now

The Lethbridge Birth Control and Information Centre Photo

The Lethbridge Birth Control and Information Centre, 1974. 542 7th Street South, Lethbridge, Alberta. Photo courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives, 19901067001.

By Karissa Patton, MA Student, University of Lethbridge

The struggle for reproductive rights and justice are often associated with women’s activisms of the past, specifically the activism of the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, leading to the 1988 Supreme Court decision that fully decriminalized abortion in Canada.[1] Authors such as Catherine Redfern and Kristine Aune have highlighted a post-feminist argument that claims that feminism does not exist anymore or that feminism is no longer needed. This is based on the premise that we have achieved reproductive justice. With several birth control options widely available, the decriminalization of abortion, and sex education required by provincial curricula, those downplaying the relevance of feminism argue that victory was achieved in the fight for reproductive rights. This argument that we live in a “post feminist society” stems from a lack of understanding, or misunderstanding, of feminism and reproductive rights.[2] The misconception that reproductive rights have been achieved is concerning, as it encourages society to ignore the social barriers and the issues of access that remain prevalent today.

Technological and legal strides have been made since the 1960s and 1970s and yet social, economic and political barriers remain, or are reinvented, based on changing political contexts. Today, we are witnessing important similarities with the 1970s in the social barriers to education about sex, birth control, and abortion. Specifically, with the moral panic around youth’s sexuality, we have seen significant retrenchments in the adult control of sex, birth control, and abortion education.

While I use contemporary examples to illuminate a current need for reproductive rights and justice on a national scale, my research focuses on the history of reproductive rights activism in Southern Alberta during the 1960s and 1970s. Therefore, this essay examines one contemporary and one historical case study of adults’ attempts to control youth’s sexuality via youth’s access to sex education as well as birth control and abortion information.

Birth control options and the presence of limited access to abortion services in urban Canada, however, does not mean that women have equal access to birth control or abortion. The Canadian government’s decriminalization of birth control and partial decriminalization of abortion in 1969 did not create equal access to women’s reproductive rights and services in the 1970s; in fact, the existence of Therapeutic Abortion Committees (introduced under Trudeau’s 1969 Omnibus legislation) restricted and controlled women’s access to abortion.[3] Even after the 1988 Supreme Court decision ruled that abortion was a decision between a woman and her doctor, women still found that abortion services were not equally accessible. Even today, some doctors privilege married women over single women when prescribing birth control (while others refuse to prescribe it at all).[4] Limited or devolving funding of reproductive health services, and limited or absent sex education were, and remain, obstacles Canadians faced even after securing legal victories. Today, the funding of, and access to, reproductive health services remains a significant concern for those of us who believe in equal access for all.

Reproductive Justice in Canada?: 2012-2014

In the last three years alone, the need for reproductive justice in Canada has intensified. In 2012 we saw a Conservative Member of Parliament (MP), Maurice Vellacott, honour two convicted criminals and anti-abortion activists with the Queen’s Jubilee medals. These two women, Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner, were charged with “violating injunctions” and “mischief and breaching court orders” at abortion clinics, respectively. Later that year, MP Stephen Woodworth brought forward Motion 312 to “study the definition of human life.” Motion 312, as described on Woodworth’s website, called for a special committee to “review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth.”[5] Both cases illustrate attempts to dissolve existing reproductive rights, such as access to abortion.

Moreover, currently in New Brunswick, the provincial government violated the Canada Health Act (CHA) by refusing to fund the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton. This defiance of the CHA places a financial burden on women that, in addition to the Province’s already restrictive policy requiring two different doctor referrals indicating that the procedure is medically necessary makes it difficult for women to get an abortion without restrictions. While the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic has faced obstacles from the New Brunswick government over its twenty-year history, its closure last week is a result of the issue finally coming to a head following Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death in May 2013.[6]  This is not an isolated case, as a Calgary doctor recently refused to prescribe the birth control pill using religious freedom as rationale. These two recent decisions bar women from reproductive health services and exemplify a broader and gendered trend rolling back access for women in Canada.

Controlling Youth’s Sexuality in Alberta Today: Misinformation, Scare Tactics, and Abstinence-Only Sex Education

In July 2013 an Edmonton teenager, Emily Dawson, enrolled in a Career And Life Management (CALM) class that is mandatory for all Alberta high school students. Alberta’s CALM curriculum includes a designated unit on sex education.  In Dawson’s class, an anti-choice advocate taught the sex education portion. According to Dawson, this speaker focused on “abstinence only” and, as Dawson explained, “She did a lot of slut-shaming[7] to the women, and pointed out the guys as horn-dogs … She really ridiculed single-parent families, she made it sound like they all give birth to juvenile delinquents.”[8] Moreover, as Dawson recalls, discussion around sexuality and sexual health was limited, with questions about same-sex relationships “shut down” and misinformation about STIs advanced with statements such as “60 per cent of boys carry the HPV sexually transmitted infection under their fingernails, that gonorrhoea can kill you in three days.”[9] Additionally, it has been revealed that sixty Edmonton schools were using with the Pregnancy Care Centre – an anti-choice organization based out of the United States – in their sex education programs. In response to this experience, Dawson and her mother filed a complaint against the Edmonton Public School District with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Edmonton Public School Board has instructed their principals to stop using the Pregnancy Care Centre to teach CALM courses, although the school district Dawson attended maintains that the abstinence-only based sex education met all curriculum requirements.[10]

Dawson’s experience with CALM illustrates a recent instance where civic society’s attempted to control youth’s sexuality using the vehicle of sex education. By controlling what gets taught about sex and sexuality, STIs, contraception, or abortion Alberta school administration morally restrained youth sexuality.  The circumstances of Dawson’s experience with provincial sex education administration and her response to the limitations of the same uncover two sides of a persistent and even historically consistent debate around parental (or adults’) rights to mediate youth access to reproductive rights. Cynthia Comacchio has explained the persistence of parental anxiety and desire to control youth sexuality:

Next to love, the most profound emotion infusing the parent-child relationship is fear. At the very heart of childbearing is an eternal nexus of hope and dread. Until the unforeseeable moment when parents can control all factors working against the child’s welfare, parental anxiety is likely to remain an historical constant.[11]

In this contemporary example, some educational administrators, teachers, and parents in Alberta endeavour to prevent pre-marital sex using abstinence-only sex education that emphasizes STIs and unwanted pregnancy in an attempt to scare youth away from sexual activity. On the other hand, some parents and student activists—in this case the Dawsons—refute this imposed morality by providing information on diverse approaches to sexuality, viable contraceptive methods, abortion, and safe sex in attempt to prepare youth for the full range of potential sexual experiences.

Controlling Youth’s Sexuality in Alberta During the 1970s: The Perceived Parental Authority on Youth’s Sex Education

The history of reproductive rights and justice in Southern Alberta during the 1970s increases our understanding of contemporary attempts to control youth’s sexuality through sex education. These oppositional approaches around open and liberal access to sex education and reproductive rights, provincially and nationally, may be traced back to the 1970s when provincial sex education curriculum was made mandatory and CALM was instituted.[12] The 1970s saw the establishment of birth control centres across the province, such the Calgary Birth Control Association and the Lethbridge Birth Control and Information Centre (LBCIC). I focus on the particular history of the LBCIC and the 1974 community fight over whether the centre should receive municipal funding to illuminate a historical precedent that fuels contemporary debates around youth’s access to sex, birth control, and abortion education. Moreover, by situating the LBCIC within the national and international movement, the history of the centre joins the work of Erika Dyck[13] and Beth Palmer who include the Albertan context to the existing literature to provide “a more comprehensive picture of the reproductive rights movement in the 1970s, by expanding the study beyond the extensive work of Vancouver- and Ontario-based activists.”[14]

In September 1972 nursing student Judy Burgess and local family doctor Lloyd Johnston began planning for the LBCIC. By this time, birth control information centers and reproductive rights activism were flourishing across the country. Student and feminist activity including, but not limited to, the McGill Birth Control Handbook, the Vancouver women’s Caucus’ Abortion Caravan, and the Calgary Birth Control Association had established a national reproductive rights movement.[15] In January 1973, the centre was officially open, establishing Lethbridge as a part of the larger national and international movement. The LBCIC began offering Lethbridge residents birth control, sexuality, and abortion information through a small library, counselling services, and educational outreach. Eventually the center offered pre-natal care for unwed mothers and sexuality seminars.[16]

As LBCIC services expanded, and support from local students, feminists, and professional (doctors, nurses, and teachers) grew, others mobilized protests against the LBCIC. They were critical of the access to birth control, abortion, and sex education it provided. Between March and April 1974 over one hundred and seventy letters as well as various petitions were sent to Lethbridge City Council either in support or protest of municipal funding for LBCIC. These letters provide insight into the civic culture on birth control, abortion, and sex education for youth.[17]In particular, the letters reflect local debates regarding the relationship between the LBCIC, abortion, and its challenge to parental authority.[18] The 1974 controversy around the LBCIC, therefore, reflects larger intergenerational conflicts around premarital sex, birth control use, and youth’s access to abortion, ultimately symptomatic of moral panic around the family and hierarchies of power within the family unit prevalent nationally and internationally in the 1970s.[19]

The letters sent to City Council were divided in how they discussed the LBCIC and abortion. Those supporting the LBCIC discussed the center’s potential to prevent abortion, while those opposing argued that the centre harmed the family and infringed on parental rights and normative lines of authority. Supporters argued that the sex and birth control education the LBCIC provided would decrease the number of abortions and regional cases of venereal disease. For example, Mary Honan wrote, “the Alberta Medical Association is alarmed over the increasing number of unwanted pregnancies, abortion requests and VD cases, therefore has expressed the need for sex education among the 12-25 year old age group…”[20]Those opposed to the centre argued that the access to the information would ultimately corrupt youth. Teresa McLeod, for instance, countered, “If we accredit the center with the drop in abortion figures then we must also accuse them for the increase in venereal disease.”[21]The implication was that increased access to birth control and birth control information inevitably lead to premarital sex, which, in turn, would increase the number of venereal disease cases.

McLeod’s argument was common among those opposing the centre, as was the argument that the LBCIC was devoid of “family values” resulting in moral panic about the instability of control over youth. Many objected to the LBCIC because it was “not family oriented.”[22] Some argued that the centre, and those working and volunteering there, were a detriment to the family unit. For example, McLeod writes, “When birth control and abortion are publicly proclaimed the family unit is undoubtedly hurt, but if the child is to be informed aside of the family, at least let us have the protection of mature and trained councillors.”[23] McLeod argued that the LBCIC eroded the “family unit” by assuming proprietorship overeducating young adults on sex and birth control.

Another common objection to the LBCIC evident across the letters sent to City Council was the perception that parents should have sole authority over the sex education of their youth. Gary Bowie’s letter reinforced this exclusive, and conservative, vision of parental authority, “Personally I feel the responsibility of providing information about sex is up to the family.”[24]Some parents opposing the centre also believed that the availability of information on abortion and abortion referrals[25]provided another harmful infringement on parental authority.[26]Lois and M. Krammer wrote,

We are strongly opposed to any organization that has the power to arrange for the medical needs of any young person, contraceptive measures, child birth, abortion or what ever — all without any parental knowledge. This is an infringement on our rights as a parent and to have it supported by public funds in unthinkable.[27]

Similarly, Mrs. Owen Wickie wrote, “To think any one human being would want to help a 12 or 13 year old child to get an abortion without the parent’s knowledge.”[28]These letters express fear of the loss of control over youth. Furthermore, they (along with other parents) reinforced the view that parents have an intrinsic right to knowledge of their children’s sexual activity and that parents participate in any decision-making process over birth control or abortion.

Grant O. Johnston’s letter exemplifies the opposition’s point of view,

This place [the LBCIC] and its attending implications adds one one [sic] factor prevalent in our society that makes good parental teaching difficult. We are trying in our family to teach by precept and example that children are desirable, marriage vows to be honoured, chastity and moral character desirable. Permissiveness, disrespect, lack of self control cannot possibly build good strong upright citizens.[29]


Johnston’s letter, like many others, illuminate the popular values of the post war era that access to knowledge about birth control or sex education outside of the family threatened the nuclear family and, therefore, society.[30] Moreover, they believed information and referrals provided by the LBCIC would result in the destruction of parental authority.

Alternatively, letters written in support of the centre focused on how democratic access to birth control information would decrease abortions. Ultimately, the local controversy outlined in these letters reflects the larger national and international debate over birth control, abortion, and sexuality during the 1970s.  While the letters were divided in terms of opposition and support for the centre, these letters illuminate Lethbridge citizens’ views on the relationship between the LBCIC, abortion, and, in the case of the opposition, a historically specific generational perspective on parental authority and control over youth’s sexual activity.


Adult control over youth’s sexuality remains today despite the 1973 creation of CALM and the establishment of mandatory sex education in the Alberta curriculum.[31] For example, the program remains the prerogative of the parents who decide whether or not their children are allowed to participate. In fact, parental control over their children’s sex education is embedded in Section 11 of Alberta’s Human Rights Act whereby, “parents have a right to be notified in advance if their children are going to be taught about sex, sexual orientation, or religion and to exempt their children from such classes.”[32]Even when parental permission to participate is granted, teachers and school administrators wield prerogative over what will or will not be taught.

Control of youth’s sexuality is achieved, therefore, through state-funded classroom pedagogy that ultimately is aimed at limiting their access to sex, and information about contraception and abortion. This was the situation in the 1970s and, as the Dawson case shows, is sustained today through these political, parental, and educational barriers to youth’s knowledge of sex, birth control, and abortion. Fortunately, supporters of the LBCIC in the 1970s and, more recently, women like Dawson and her mother, wage a critical battle for unmediated access to sex education and reproductive health services. Moreover, Dawson’s fights for access to sex, birth control, and abortion education illustrates that the larger national and international fight for reproductive rights and justice is not a thing of the past but a battle that continues today.

 Karissa Patton is a second year M.A. student in the Department of History and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Her research focuses on the history of reproductive rights activism in Southern Alberta during the 1960s and 1970s. Patton is involved in several volunteer positions at the Galt Museum and Archives (Lethbridge, AB) as well as the University of Lethbridge Archives. She is also a member of the U of L’s Centre for Oral History and Tradition.

[1]“Reproductive Justice organizes women, girls and their communities to challenge structural power inequalities in a comprehensive and transformative process of empowerment.” Loretta Ross, “Understanding Reproductive Justice: Transforming the Pro-Choice Movement,” Off Our Backs vol.36 no. 4 (2006), 14.

[2] Catherine Redfern and Kristine Aune, “Introduction,” in Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement (London& New York: Zed Books, 2010), 7; Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier, “Introduction,” in Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century, edited by Rory Dicker and Alison Piepmeier (New England: Northwest University Press, 2003), 1-26; Pamela Aronson, “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’? Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations,” Gender and Society vol. 17 no. 6 (2003), 903-922.

[3] See Beth Palmer, “‘Lonely, Tragic, but Legally Necessary Pilgrimages’: Transnational Abortion Travel in the 1970s,” The Canadian Historical Review 92 (December 2011): 637-664; Christabelle Sethna and Marion Doull,“Accidental Tourists: Canadian Women, Abortion Tourism, and Travel, “Women’s Studies 41, no. 4 (June 2012): 457-475; Christabelle Sethna, Beth Palmer, Katrina Ackerman, and Nancy Janovicek, “Choice Interrupted: Travel and Inequality of Access to Abortion Services since the 1960s,” Labour/Le Travail, 71 (Spring 2013), 29-48.

[4] Angus McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1980, (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986), 15-30.Manisha Krishnan, “Doctor on duty ‘will not prescribe the birth control pill,’ reads sign at Calgary walk-in clinic,” National Post, June 26, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014,

[5]“Motion 312,” Stephen Woodworth: Member of Parliament for Kitchener Centre, accessed July 20, 2014.

[6]Laura Armstrong, “Abortion Clinic Crowd-Funding Campaign Surpasses $50,000,” Toronto Star, July 14, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014,; Kevin Bissett, “Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton will perform final abortions today,” Globe & Mail, July 18, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014,; CBC News, “Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton to perform last abortions today before closure,” July 18, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014,; “The Morgentaler Clinic: Fredericton, New Brunswick,” Morgentaler New Brunswick, accessed July 18, 2014,

[7] For an explanation of slut-shaming, see Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold, “Slut-shaming, girl power and ‘sexualization’: thinking through the politics of the international SlutWalks with teen girls,” Gender and Education vol24 no. 3 (2012), 333-334; LiJia Gong and Alina Hoffman, “Sexting and Slut-Shaming: Why Prosecution of Teen Self-Sexters Harms Women,” Geo J. Gender & L vol. 13 (2012), 577.

[8] Paula Simmons, “Christian sex-ed in public schools infringes on human rights, Edmonton mother and daughter say in complaint,” National Post, July 10, 2014, accessed July 10, 2014.; National Post, “Edmonton school board U.S. pro-abstinence from sex-ed classes after rights complaint,” July 11, 2014, accessed July 18, 2013,; Oren Lefkowitz, “Abstinence-Only Sex Ed in Alberta Goes to Human Rights Commission,” The True North Times, July 11, 2014, accessed July 18, 2014,

[9] Simmons, “Christian sex-ed in public schools; “National Post, “Edmonton school board U.S. pro-abstinence from sex-ed classes after rights complaint;” Oren Lefkowitz, “Abstinence-Only Sex Ed in Alberta.”

[10] Simmons, “Christian sex-ed in public schools; “National Post, “Edmonton school board U.S. pro-abstinence from sex-ed classes after rights complaint;” Oren Lefkowitz, “Abstinence-Only Sex Ed in Alberta.”

[11] Cynthia Comacchio, Nations are Built of Babies (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), 3.

[12] Barbara Lacey, interview by Karissa Patton, February 11, 2013, transcript.

[13] Erika Dyck, “Sterilization and Birth Control in the Shadow of Eugenics: Married, Middle-Class Women in Alberta, 1930-1960s,” CBMH/BCHM vol. 31 no.1 (2014), 165-187.

[14]Palmer, “‘Lonely, Tragic, but Legally Necessary Pilgrimages,’” 642.

[15] Christabelle Sethna, “The Evolution of the Birth Control Handbook: From Student Peer- Education Manual to Feminist Self-empowerment Text, 1968-1975,” in Rethinking Canada: The Promise of Women’s History, edited by Mona Gleason, Tamara Myers, and Adele Perry, (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2011): 390-408; Christabelle Sethna and Steve Hewitt, “Clandestine Operations: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus, the Abortion Caravan, and the RCMP,” Canadian Historical Review vol. 90 no. 3 (September 2009), 463-495; Doug Owram, “Sexual Revolutions and Revolutions of the Sexes, 1965-1973,” in Born at the Right Time: A History of the Baby-Boom Generation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

Beth Palmer, “‘Lonely, Tragic, but Legally Necessary Pilgrimages’: Transnational Abortion Travel in the 1970s,” Canadian Historical Review vol. 92 (December, 2011), 637-664.

[16]Judy Burgess, interview by Karissa Patton, December 8, 2012, transcript.

[17] On the usefulness of such letters, see Bill Reader, and Kevin Moist, “Letters as Indicators of Community Values: Two Case Studies of Alternative Magazines,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 85, no. 4 (2008): 823-840.

[18]Letters and Petitions Re: Funding of Birth Control Centre, Early City Records Collection, Galt Museum and Archives, 19742011.1085/069.

[19]Owram, “Sexual Revolutions and Revolutions of the Sexes,” 262-263.

[20]Mary Honan, et al. Letter to Lethbridge City Council, no date.

[21]Teresa McLeod, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974.

[22]Robert K. McIntosh, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 3, 1974.

[23]Teresa McLeod, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974.

[24]Gary Bowie, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 1, 1974.

[25]The LBCIC referred clients of the centre to local doctors who would provide birth control prescriptions or perform abortions.

[26]C. J. Peterson, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974. Sam McCollen, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974. Debbie Allison, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974.

[27]Lois J. Krammer and M. Krammer, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 1, 1974.

[28]Mrs. Owen Wickie, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 2, 1974.

[29] Grant O Johnson, letter to Lethbridge City Council, April 7, 1974.

[30]Owram, “Sexual Revolutions and Revolutions of the Sexes,” 262-263.

[31] Barbara Lacey, interview by Karissa Patton, February 11, 2013, transcript.

[32] Simmons, “Christian sex-ed in public schools.”

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