Law

Attention may have shifted from it, but abortion remains a major issue

CHERYL HAWKES November 14 1977
Law

Attention may have shifted from it, but abortion remains a major issue

CHERYL HAWKES November 14 1977

Attention may have shifted from it, but abortion remains a major issue

Law

It used to be the Dionne quints, the maple leaf and Niagara Falls. “But now when I travel outside Canada,” says Mary Mills, head of Canada’s Planned Parenthood Federation, “people ask about Quebec, Margaret Trudeau and Morgentaler.” Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s battle with Canada’s abortion laws may have put us on the map, but a year after the Montreal abortionist was allowed to return to work the Criminal Code remains unchanged. Anyone trying “to procure the miscarriage of a female

person, whether or not she is pregnant,” without approval of a hospital committee, is liable to life imprisonment. Legal experts argue that Morgentaler’s three jury acquittals on charges of performing illegal abortions set a precedentFor future acquittals. But who wants to risk it? “After what he went through, it would take someone with a death wish,” says Dr. Earl Plunkett of the University of Western Ontario.

While the letter of the law remains intact, scientists are working hard to develop better and safer methods of therapeutic abortion as well as various means of intercepting a fertilized egg within hours of

conception. To anti-abortion purists, these after-the-fact methods halt a newly begun life and are immoral. To legal purists, the “new contraception” obscures the once clear boundary between contraception and abortion.

This month, a meeting of Commonwealth health ministers in New Zealand will hear a paper, prepared by University of Toronto Professor Bernard Dickens and Rebecca Cook of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, compar-

ing abortion laws in 53 Commonwealth jurisdictions. Among 10 “advanced” countries noted, Canada boasts the most limited legal grounds for abortion: threat to the life, physical or mental health of the mother. Others, including Britain, India and Australia, have written into their abortion laws such justifications as fetal defects, socioeconomic barriers, rape and incest. Only Singapore provides abortion on request. Two other papers review the new postcoital birth control methods, many of which are in use in Canada.

The Canadian Committee on Fertility Research, a network of researchers from

14 Canadian universities, is currently testing low-dose steroid pills on 3,000 university students. Taken within 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse, they are an emergency method to induce menstruation. Plunkett, who is chairman of the committee, says the compound is a milder alternative to DES (the so-called morningafter pill), until now the most researched form of postcoital birth control.

Menstrual extraction can be used to take a sample of the womb lining in treating women with irregular menstrual periods. But used on women suspected of being in the very early stages of pregnancy, it is deemed an abortion. “It’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Plunkett. “Because of the law I don’t think it’s practised very widely in Canada.” Montreal gynecologist Lise Fortier says office abortions are performed without committee approval “in great numbers in Quebec.”

Fortier, a former president of both Planned Parenthood and the Canadian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says after-the-fact insertion of an intrauterine device (IUD) is “one of the best postcoital contraceptives.” No one really knows how IUDS work. They are thought, in part, to prevent a floating fertilized egg from settling in the womb. And for Toronto obstetrician Heather Morris that’s abortion. “Life begins at conception,” says Morris, head of the 1,000member Canadian Physicians for Life, a group calling for stiffer abortion laws. She argues that any substance taken after conception to halt a suspected pregnancy is an abortion, whether you call it that or not.

Semantics perhaps, but the emotion-laden issue of abortion isn’t an isolated morality play. Like suicide, homosexuality and divorce, it is a growing fact of Canadian life. The legal status of abortion will do little to deter a woman who wants one but will affect how she goes about getting it. And it won’t be the first time medical practice has left the law running on the spot. Statutes forbidding the distribution of birth control information and devices were not removed from the Criminal Code until 1969, despite a 1936 test case involving Ottawa public health nurse Dorothea Palmer. Palmer was one of about 50 nurses handing out birth control aids to needy Canadian families during the Depression. She was acquitted. By the 1950s, condoms were sold openly in drugstores and doctors were prescribing IUDS and diaphragms despite the law. Mills asks: “Will we have to wait 40 years for abortion law to catch up, tOO?”

CHERYL HAWKES