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Stories from the front line of the victorious abortion struggle in Canada

Monday, January 28 is the anniversary of the deepest and most important victory the women’s movement in Canada has ever had. After almost 20 years of struggle, beginning with the Abortion Caravan in 1970, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the abortion law in a landmark decision citing women’s right to privacy — in effect women’s rights to control their own bodies.

When the judgment came down, I was standing with about 50 other supporters outside the Morgentaler Clinic on Harbord Street in downtown Toronto. Along with Dr. Henry Morgentaler, we had been battling Conservative governments at two levels, the cops and the anti-choice forces, including the Catholic Church, for eight years.

We had arranged for Carolyn Egan, who as a birth control worker had been one of the key people to initiate the fight in Toronto, to call us from Ottawa as soon as the judgment came down. There were a huge number of TV cameras and reporters waiting with us. And it was freezing.

A reporter whispered to me that the decision had come and that they had struck down the abortion law, based on a women’s right to control her own body. I didn’t believe her. We thought we might win on a technicality of equal access to a medical procedure but never on a fundamental rights issue. So I didn’t pass it along. Five minutes later we got the call. The scrum moved in, “How do you feel , Judy? Tell us how you feel.”

“I feel great!” I replied jumping about a foot off the ground. I don’t think I’d ever felt so much joy. After eight years of organizing, demonstrating, direct action, lobbying, fundraising and sometimes facing threats and violence, we had won. We had won in the highest court in the land and at that moment I felt no-one would ever be able to take it away.

By some serendipity, this historic anniversary falls on the international day of action called by Idle No More, another mass popular social movement that is making what the pundits think are impossible demands. We didn’t have twitter in those days so media couldn’t track day to day our support like they are doing now with Idle No More so they never knew that our support would ebb and flow depending on what was happening When we were under attack we could count on thousands to come out. Day to day it was about a hundred activists who kept things going. Even though we got tremendous coverage, and the media was supportive, they were just as skeptical as they are today about Idle No More.

I am reminded of the day in 1986 when I ran into an old friend Elly Alboim, who was Executive Producer of the National, in an airport. It was soon after the Court of Appeals in Ontario had rejected the jury’s verdict of not guilty and ordered a new trial. “You’ll never win this, Judy,” he informed me. “I’ve talked to the lawyers. There is no possible way you are going to win.” But we did win, thanks to the courage of Dr. Morgentaler and Dr. Scott and the mobilization of tens of thousands of women and men from every community, every social class and every walk of life taking to the streets, protecting the clinic with their bodies, writing a cheque, lobbying their representatives, attending a meeting, passing a resolution or just talking to their neighbours.

I got involved in the fall of 1981, when Carolyn and her co-workers called a community meeting with the idea of opening an illegal abortion clinic to challenge the law, along the model of Dr. Morgentaler’s in Montreal.

After a long struggle in Quebec, the PQ government had basically legalized abortion, refusing to prosecute any doctor who was performing abortions in safe conditions after two Catholic juries had acquitted Dr. Morgentaler.

The birth control workers realized that while white middle class women with connections had access to abortion under the 1969 law, poor women, immigrant women, rural women, young women, couldn’t get access. Even in Toronto, appointments for the limited hospital abortions were the luck of the draw. A lottery, we used to call it. You had to get on the phone and start calling at 8 am and keep calling, hoping to get through. Imagine the stress of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy not knowing if she would get through at all or in time for a first trimester abortion. CARAL, the Canadian Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Law, founded in 1974 had been lobbying to change the law, educating the public and raising money for Dr. Morgentaler’s court cases in Quebec but more was needed.

The birth control workers wanted to open a clinic like Dr. Morgentaler’s abortion clinic and build a movement to support it. At first Dr. Morgentaler, who had suffered a heart attack in jail in Quebec, didn’t want to open a clinic in Toronto. But eventually he relented. Even before the clinic opened we started organizing. The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinic (OCAC) was at first a coalition of pro-choice groups and others. We set out to build public support even before the clinic opened. A rally of 1,000 people at OISE with Dr. Morgentaler, June Callwood and others kicked off the campaign.

In the fall of 1982 we introduced a resolution supporting the legalization of free-standing abortion clinics (our basic demand) at the Ontario Federation of Labour convention . It was controversial and even some of the feminist activists in the OFL didn’t want it to reach the floor in case it undermined their resolution for special women’s seats on the OFL executive. We compromised by agreeing the pro-choice resolution would be introduced after the other one passed.

I’ll never forget that day. Every woman at the convention was up at the microphones. Even women who didn’t want to speak wanted to show their support. Some labour leaders argued against on the basis that it wasn’t a union issue and it would divide the labour movement. We had been working the convention all week, building support. The women at the mics showed by our presence that it was indeed a union issue.

Then Lois Bedard, whom everyone knew as a hard-bitten lefty who was usually railing against the leadership, talked about her son, also a union activist, who had recently died. He was hemophiliac. “I got pregnant again,” she explained to a hushed auditorium of 1,500 delegates. “I didn’t want my next child to suffer like he did. There was no legal abortions then, no effective birth control either. I went through three illegal back street abortions. Horrible experiences, so that no other child of mine would have to suffer.” Suddenly the morality of the issue came clear. Then the OFL President Cliff Pilkey gave up the chair of the meeting to come to the microphone and argue for the resolution. His mother had had thirteen children, ruining her life and her health. “Women must have the right to choose,” thundered Pilkey. “Women are part of this labour movement, so this is a labour issue.” That was the first turning point. The resolution passed by a large majority vote.

The clinic opened in June 1983 on Harbord Street in downtown Toronto. Dr. Morgentaler arrived in the afternoon. It was my job to escort him across the street. There was a huge bank of cameras and reporters who had been there all day waiting for something to happen. And then it did. Half way across the street, a man ran from the corner and grabbed Dr. Morgentaler. I pulled his hand off and Cheryl, another OCAC activist walking with us, ushered Henry into the clinic and safety. I pushed the man away as he raised his arm with a garden shear that I assume he intended to use on Dr. Morgentaler. I blocked him but he thought better of stabbing me and started to run down the street. It was the first time in my life that I understood the meaning of losing your temper. It was ridiculous to chase him but I was so angry I couldn’t think straight. Fortunately Cheryl, a psychiatric nurse, realized I was in a state of shock and once she had Henry safe she came outside, ran to catch up and yelled my name into my ear to stop me. Not a single reporter moved to help me. Not just the camera operators, I know they had to get the shot, but the print reporters. Our supporters couldn’t see what was happening over the media hordes. That was the day we were able to show that the anti-choice were fanatics and I think public opinion moved more to our side.

The clinic was open for about three weeks. It was an exciting time. Despite the dangers, women came in droves for their appointments. The police started following the women home to get “evidence” against the doctors. In the creative space that happens in a dynamic social movement, someone got the idea of having escorts and safe houses. The escort would drive each patient to a safe house first, inform her of her rights, perhaps share a cup of tea and then drive her home. That meant the cops couldn’t harass women when they were most vulnerable. An unexpected consequence was that the escorts became a solid front guard of the movement, always prepared to mobilize when needed. They had as much invested in the clinic as we did. At this point, the anti-choice was holding back waiting for the Ontario government and the police to act and arrest the doctors. Three weeks later they did.

Doctors Morgentaler, Smoling and Scott were arrested for performing illegal abortions. Dr. Morgentaler closed the clinic until the trial. Once again, like in Quebec, he was acquitted by a jury. In a bold summary, his lawyer Morris Manning said to the jury, “you can ignore the law, if you think it is unjust” and that is exactly what they did unanimously. Throughout the court case, Carolyn, Norma Scarborough from CARAL and I met with Henry and Morris to try and co-ordinate the legal case with the struggle in the streets. After the acquittal, Henry opened the clinic again. That’s when we had to deal with the anti-choice. As the Crown prepared their appeal, the anti-choice started regular demonstrations in front of the clinic harassing the women who were seeking a procedure. We had people out there every day too helping the women through the lines and keeping the anti-choice off the property. Direct action, we might call it today. Labour activists who knew how to hold a picket line helped us a lot.

Another turning point came when a CFRB reporter showed up at the door of the clinic. I wasn’t often there but I was that day. He was running two tape recorders. On one a tape played of a woman with an accent saying that Dr. Morgentaler had forced her to have an abortion when she didn’t want it. The other tape was running to record my response. I said I didn’t know about the incident but what I did know is that Dr. Morgentaler had an impeccable record and that there had never been a complaint against him. I was sure that there was another explanation. What happened later that day convinced me that we were going to win.

After he left, I met with the clinic staff and Henry. What had happened was that the woman had freaked out on the table while the doctor had already started the abortion. It was not possible to stop without great danger. The nurses tried to calm her and then finally at the end of the procedure she was fine, hugging the nurses and thanking them.

So what had happened?

Within an hour after the news hit, we got a call at the clinic. It was the cab driver who had picked her up. He explained that she was fine, talking to an escort who was traveling with her. It wasn’t until he was dropping her at her home when the police approached the cab that she got upset. We decided to see if a reporter would find him and Sheila Mannese from CBC reviewing the tapes (there were always TV cameras outside the clinic) found him herself. Within an hour, someone called from the police station telling us she was being pressured; then someone else from emergency at the hospital and then from immigration informing us that she was an illegal immigrant. It was that moment that I knew we would win. They couldn’t get away with lying.

All day we dealt with media. Our word against the Chief of Police. We said they had harassed her and forced her to make the complaint on pain of deportation. He denied it and said she had come on her own. On the evening news, there was the taxi driver, an unemployed actor as it turned out, telling the story. “She was fine, “ he said, “talking to the escort who invited her for a cup of soup the next day. They embraced, laughing. Then I dropped off the escort and took her home. The police showed up just as she was getting out of my cab and then she looked scared.”

The last turning point came when the Catholic Church decided to call out their troops. One Sunday, the priests were asked to give their sermon on the evil of abortion and call on all their constituents to demonstrate in front of the clinic in two week’s time. Every day of that week, Monday to Thursday, 2,000 people, including children from Catholic schools were bused in demonstrate in front of the clinic. There was media coverage night after night.

By this point, we had had many rallies but none of them had been bigger than 2,000. We didn’t think we could out mobilize them. CARAL was against having a counter demonstration. It would make us look weak they felt. OCAC discussed it and decided whatever numbers, we had to fight back. Otherwise our people would get demoralized. We called a counter demonstration on Friday. CARAL was furious but they pulled out all the stops trying to make to make the demonstration a success. It was at that moment that I learned something key about building a movement. Whatever differences we might have had, CARAL was committed to building the movement. Even though they were sure it was a mistake, they knew once we called it, they had to put everything into building it, even if it proved they were wrong.

Another unforgettable day. I was standing on the steps of Queen’s Park (they didn’t construct barricades in those days) watching wave after wave of people pour out of the subways. After every report of the Catholic protest, the media announced the time and date of our protest as balance. So all the people who had been quietly cheering Dr. Morgentaler in the privacy of their own homes decided now was the time to show their colours. Queen’s Park was full, people spilling out into the street, more than 15,000 people rallied and then marched to the clinic. Up until that march, the anti-choice thought they were a majority and I guess the government might have as well. That night it was clear, as Henry had always said, “the people are with us.”

The pro-choice movement was the broadest and most successful social movement I have ever seen in Canada. And while access to abortion is still not universal and back bench Conservatives have tried over and over again to re-criminalize abortion, that victory has stood the test of time. Today Canada is one of the few countries in the world to have no legal restrictions on abortion and women have the right to reproductive freedom, a foundational right for women’s equality.

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