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The Decriminalisation of Abortion in The Maritime Provinces of Canada and Scotland by Amy Joyce

The Maritime Provinces of Canada and Scotland have strong historical ties that link the areas closely. In both places, the decriminalisation of abortion in the late 1960s was a milestone in women’s history but sparked fierce pro-choice and pro-life debates and activism. There are extensive histories and studies on abortion and individual movements, but there is a distinct lack of abortion campaign comparisons between countries. With a focus on the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, my research explores the women’s movements campaigns and their influence on the abortion debate. A comparative study of pro-choice campaigns is an effective way to analyse the history of abortion. By focusing specifically on one perspective, it may highlight new insights about the impact of movements and how societies consider and treat the topic of abortion. By comparing two places such as the Maritime Provinces and Scotland, one can determine similarities and differences in the implementation of the women’s movement when fighting for abortion rights.

The Maritime Provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island (PEI) and New Brunswick) have maintained a relatively religious culture, with those involved in organised religion generally subscribing to Catholicism. This dominant nature of religion created difficult grounds for the relaxing of abortion laws in Canada. In 1969, the Criminal Law Amendment Act proposed an array of changes, including the decriminalisation of abortion. While, theoretically, the 1969 bill legalised abortion, restrictions meant that abortions were not accessible throughout the whole of the country. The law required the person seeking an abortion to present their case in front of a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC), made up of three doctors who decided the outcome. This made it extremely difficult to receive the procedure. Hospitals did not need to have these committees and private clinics were not legal. In PEI, abortion was not accessible from the 1980s to 2017 as the hospitals did not have TACs. Both the pro-choice and pro-life groups found this law insufficient: pro-choice wanted unrestricted abortion access and pro-life wanted further restrictions. The decriminalisation of the law did not protect abortion access and women’s organisations in the Maritime Provinces had a tough and long fight ahead of them. Compared to the women’s organisations in PEI and New Brunswick, The Nova Scotia Women’s Action Committee was the most co-ordinated women’s movement that fought to allow abortion access in Nova Scotia.[1] PEI had the strongest religious community and due to the small population of the island, it was difficult to create a strong, cohesive pro-choice organisation. The women’s organisations that did fight for abortion access focused on women in the community, providing resources and help for those in need. Efforts from medical professionals such as Dr Henry Morgentaler were also pushed back. Dr Morgentaler was one of the only doctors during this period that publicly advocated for abortion rights, he opened his own clinics, trained numerous doctors and won a legal battle to drop the requirement of TACs. Dr Morgentaler tried to set up clinics in the Maritime Provinces but was met with strong resistance and was not successful.[2] Abortion access in the Maritime Provinces remained limited and the religious community largely achieved their aims while the women’s organisations focused their efforts on helping individuals and working with medical facilities.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Scottish women’s movement took a very different approach to their abortion campaigns. Similar to the law in Canada, the UK law decriminalised abortion in 1967 but did not protect women’s rights to access the service. Women had to receive permission from two doctors to have the procedure.[3] The National Abortion Campaign (NAC) was a UK wide campaign to increase abortion access, however, in Scotland, many women felt a more localised approach would be beneficial and started up the Scottish Abortion Campaign (SAC) to work in partnership with the NAC. The SAC primarily focused their fight on politics by campaigning against the proposed reform bills that would impose further restrictions and gathering support for their cause. These included the Corrie Bill (1979) and Alton Bill (1987) both of which proposed to drastically reduce the time limits on abortion from the then current 28 weeks.[4] There were a few prominent medical figures both on the pro-life and pro-choice side who rallied support in the medical community, but an in-depth study of their impact would be for further study. There was a sizable backlash from the religious community, but as the fight focused on politics, the power was in the Bills. The SAC focused on maintaining the 1967 Abortion Act and providing aid for women which ensured that access remained unchanged. Their contribution and extensive work are essential to consider when assessing the influence of the women’s movement. Despite the setbacks endured, the Scottish women’s movement was a determined force that left a lasting impact on society.

 

If we compare the women’s movements in the two areas, the organisations embarked on different campaign approaches, but both faced the same opposition groups. Largely in both areas, the women’s movement faced religious groups and criticism from both politicians and figures from the medical community. The biggest differences between the women’s movements were the force and focus of the groups. In the Maritime Provinces, the women’s movements faced strong opposition and opted to focus resources on helping women and improving abortion access in local hospitals, whereas in Scotland, the movements applied pressure on politicians and were extremely vocal about their fight. The reasons for the more reserved nature of the Maritime Provinces movements are not known as a more in-depth study would be needed. From the evidence, it suggests that religious groups already established in the Maritime Provinces were a strong and cohesive force that used the community and pressure to silence the women’s movement and isolate individuals fighting for choice. The religious organisations in PEI threatened to stop funding for a new hospital unless it promised to ban abortions and it was successful in shutting down Planned Parenthood, the only facility providing impartial education and resources. Further study into this area of women’s history would provide additional insight into the turbulent nature of abortion access and in this particular case, how the long restrictions have impacted women and their communities. The Maritime Provinces are largely isolated from the rest of Canada, hence travel to other provinces is costly and time-consuming, factors such as these would have had a detrimental impact on these women. Comparative studies are extremely useful for areas with little academic research as they can help identify the strengths and weakness of the women’s movement and the pro-life groups, and how we can use these lessons to improve the lives of women in the future.

Amy Joyce is a recent History graduate from the University of Glasgow. She specialises in women’s history and is going to study her Masters in History with a concentration in Women and Gender Studies at McGill University. Her dissertation, ‘Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Choice’: A Study of the Women’s Movements and Pro-Choice Campaigns in the Maritime Provinces of Canada and Scotland, 1970s-1980s, was highly commended as part of the WHN Undergraduate Dissertation Competition.

[1] Dalhousie University Archives, Nova Scotia Women’s Action Committee fonds, MS-11-4,

Dalhousie Library, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada

[2] James G. Snell and Frederick Vaughan, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution,

(London; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), pp. 242-43

[3] Roger Davidson and Gayle Davis, The Sexual State: Sexuality and Scottish Governance, 1950-1980, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 97-100

[4] Glasgow Women’s Library Archives, Scottish Abortion Campaign, GB 1534, Glasgow

Women’s Library, Glasgow, Scotland

Image credit: Scottish Abortion Campaign Badge, c.1980, Women’s Library, Glasgow.