On Jan. 25, professionals and students gathered at the University of Toronto for a day to mark the 20th anniversary of the R. v. Morgentaler decision in 1988. The symposium, entitled, “Of What Difference: Reflections on the Judgement and Abortion in Canada Today,” was a collaborative effort by the International Reproductive and Sexual Health Law Program at the Faculty of Law, the University of Toronto, and the National Abortion Federation. As well, there was support from the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. The purpose of the day was to examine the significance of the Supreme Court judgement in 1988 and answer the question: what difference has it made to women, providers and the politics of abortion in Canada 20 years later?

There were less than 100 in attendance, and a good number of those were pro-life supporters. Despite the clash in beliefs, the day went on without any disturbances, although security personnel were manning their posts.

The opening remarks included a welcome by Henry Morgentaler, who claimed that Canada is a “kinder and gentler place for women” because they can make choices about their reproductive health. Access to abortion at his private abortion facilities affirm the dignity and equality of women in Canada, he claimed. Morgentaler ushered in a well-worn phrase, “Every mother a willing mother. Every child a wanted child” and continued to claim that abortion has helped to create a society where “people can realize their full potential.” He set the stage for a day in which only half of the abortion issue would be discussed – the focus was on the rights of women, with virtually no mention of the unborn child.

Professor Shelley Gavigan, from Osgoode Hall Law School, came the closest to tackling the issue of what she referred to as “the discourse of the unborn fetus” and tried to dismiss it as a pro-life ideology. She recognized that the pro-life movement frames a lot of its arguments in terms of fetal rights. For the “pro-choice” movement to engage properly, it should follow suit, but always by showing that the “pregnant woman and the unborn child speak with one voice and that voice is hers.” Otherwise, what a pro-life advocate recognizes as an unborn human being, speakers during the day referred to it as “products of abortion” and “tissue.” The humanity of the unborn was a non-issue.

Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett spoke of her work as a politician and the politics of abortion. She demonstrated very clearly her thoughts on what the role of an MP should be. She shared of a time when one of her constituents voiced his concern that she was not representing the majority of her constituents who are pro-life. She dismissed the fact it could even be true, but went on to say that even if the person was correct, she must “do what I know is best with what I know.” She explained that legislators are leaders, not followers, and they must “serve national interest, not simply the interest of their own constituency.” As she continued, she stated that “no legislator should ever be forced to vote against their conscience on ethical and moral matters.”

This, however, did not stop Bennett from criticizing pro-life politicians and their supporters who have brought up and supported pro-life bills. Pro-life MPs are apparently exempt from being allowed to vote with their consciences because “human rights are not subject to majority rule in a democracy,” according to Bennett.

A general sentiment regarding abortion can sometimes be summed up as the desire to have abortion made “safe, legal and rare.” However, it was made quite clear at the symposium that “rare” was not on the radar anymore. The latest figures from Statistics Canada show over 100,000 women underwent an abortion in 2004. The speakers frequently spoke about the importance of accessibility and bemoaned the fact that so many women actually cannot have an abortion as easily or affordably as others depending on various factors. This was seen as a grave violation of their human rights.

Sheila Dunn, from the Bay Centre for Birth Control, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto and family physician at Women’s College Hospital, spoke about the dilemma geography poses to accessible to abortion. It was pointed out that only Ontario and Quebec have physicians who will perform abortions past 20 weeks gestation. She also lamented the fact that Prince Edward Island does not provide abortion services and that New Brunswick only funds abortions committed in hospitals.

Dunn closed her session with a few suggestions to increase access to abortion in Canada. She suggested removing the condition for a physician referral to an abortion provider. There should be encouragement for family doctors in northern and rural communities to provide medical abortions. And finally, the abortion drug RU-486 should be approved without restrictions, she said.

Professor Sanda Rodgers from the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa followed Dunn and reiterated the frustration with supposed barriers to access. She explained that “despite the Morgentaler decision, all barriers are still in place, including wait times and limited access.” Rodgers claimed that “women are just as likely to get an abortion whether it is legal or outlawed” and thus the lack of accessibility is unsafe for women.

Another concern brought up during the day was the fact that medical students and doctors are less interested in doing abortions. This, of course, was presented as a serious problem for women who are seeking an abortion. Dr. Pat Smith, from Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont., spoke of her concern that there is less exposure to abortion training in medical schools. She attributed this to the fact that abortion education is seen as too controversial for medical schools to teach. Smith said she would like to see more pressure on medical schools to address this issue.