MACLEAN’S REPORTS

QUEBEC SWALLOWS THE PILL

A shibboleth shatters as the French join the clamor for legal family planning

ELIZABETH GRAY May 2 1966
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

QUEBEC SWALLOWS THE PILL

A shibboleth shatters as the French join the clamor for legal family planning

ELIZABETH GRAY May 2 1966

QUEBEC SWALLOWS THE PILL

A shibboleth shatters as the French join the clamor for legal family planning

DEEP IN a 30-page brief to the federalprovincial welfare conference earlier this year, Quebec’s René Lévesque casually shattered one of Canada's hoariest shibboleths: Quebec approves of birth-control clinics and even wants Ottawa to help finance them. Not only was this the first time that any government spokesman has dared to sug-

PETERSON ON THE PROWL

gest spending public money on birth control, it also gave official sanction to a dramatic change in public opinion taking place inside Quebec.

It’s fairly obvious that the section of Canada’s Criminal Code outlawing birth - control measures may soon be amended or tossed out altogether. With four private members’ bills urging change now before the House of Commons health committee and dozens ol "illegal” family-planning groups thriving across the country, the pressure on the government to alter the law is enormous.

What’s not so obvious is that a good deal of this pressure — on an official as well as a layman’s level — is coming from Quebec. Politicians can no longer blame the former “priest-ridden” province with its predominantly Roman Catholic outlook for the fact that Canadians may not legally plan their own families.

Ixvesquc, for instance, was just one of several prominent people supporting birth control interviewed in a twoweek series of articles last January in La Presse, Montreal’s big Catholic French - language daily. And last month, in a speech to Montreal’s Family Service Association, Lévesque cited birth control as one of his department’s top-priority considerations.

Much of the credit for the change in attitude goes to Mrs. Alice Cowan, a vivacious blonde housewife from Montreal West who started the city’s first Family Planning Association 18 months ago. At first the association was mainly an English institution, providing birth-control literature through the mail and the names of obliging doctors through its telephone service. Then in mid-January the association blossomed forth with information in French. Within six weeks it had heard from 1,000 people anxious to learn all about planning families.

The response is so overwhelming that the association, with only a small number of doctors supporting it, cannot refer patients directly. “Most of our letters come from out of town,” says the association’s French secretary, Nicole Gaucher. “A lot of them are from people who want to know what ■planning’ means. We have to make the doctors understand that people need them.”

Officially the Quebec College of Physicians and Surgeons is neutral on the subject. “It is not within our competence to make a pronouncement on the changing of the federal law,” a college spokesman said. But 10 of the doctors who support the Montreal FPA do so publicly after a letter some weeks ago in La Presse. The association’s English side has only three doctors who have made themselves known publicly — although there are a good many others who will accept patients as long as their names are kept out of print.

This caution is typical. Throughout Quebec it's the French, not the English, doctors who are making the most noise in favor of birth control. Notre Dame, Montreal’s largest Catholic hospital. is the only hospital in the city

offering birth-control advice. Although Notre Dame’s clinic is limited at the moment to non-mechanical methods, the staff is unofficially preparing to provide instruction in all means of birth control.

The University of Montreal’s medical school is the only one in the province that trains its students in birthcontrol methods. The school's Jesuit professor of medical morals advocates birth control hy all available techniques. And the Church itself, contrary to popular belief, is offering little resistance. Paul-Emile Cardinal Légér was one of the leaders of the birthcontrol debate at the ecumenical council and many Quebec priests have since felt free not only to advise birth control but in some cases to air their opinions on radio and TV programs.

At the University of Montreal’s Department of Demography (demography is the study of population), statistics bear out Quebec’s change of attitude. Dr. Jacques Henripin, the head of the department who recently denounced the federal government’s “hypocrisy” at a family - planning symposium in Ottawa, says the birth rate in Quebec has dropped enormously in recent years. “It’s no longer the highest in Canada. And this hasn’t happened because of the rhythm method.”

ELIZABETH GRAY