The Day of Infamy and Canada’s enduring shame
The first National March for Life in Ottawa in 1998 was organized around the theme, “a day of infamy,” as it marked the day that abortion-on-demand became legal in Canada. About 700 people attended to bear witness against the injustice of abortion unleashed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his Omnibus Bill passed on May 14, 1969.
As Fr. Alphonse de Valk reports in his book, Morality and Law in Canadian Politics: the Abortion Controversy, throughout the 1960s there was a concerted campaign in the media (most notably the Globe and Mail, Chatelaine, and the United Church Observer) and among professional organizations such as the Canadian Medical Association and Canadian Bar Association, to liberalize the country’s abortion laws. The CBA argued for clarification in the law to ensure doctors were not prosecuted for committing abortions, while the CMA initially limited its lobbying for abortion in cases of rape or incest and to preserve the life or health of the mother. But by 1967 the CMA was also in favour of eugenic abortions in cases of genetic defects. American and British counterparts were likewise calling for changes in abortion law. The 1960s were also a period of personal liberation and the Sexual Revolution. Feminism erupted. The effect was shifting attitudes in public opinion, with a Gallup poll indicating 71 per cent of Canadians supporting making abortion legal in at least some circumstances. By 1966, the United Church of Canada was openly agitating for abortion as birth control. About the same time, the Anglican Church of Canada began softening its opposition to abortion by supporting exceptions for the life and health of the mother, in cases of rape, and to prevent the birth of children with genetic defects. The Presbyterian Church supported abortion in limited circumstances. Moral opposition to abortion was giving way.
In 1966, prime minister Lester Pearson began discussing liberalizing Criminal Code prohibitions on divorce, contraception, and abortion. As Edward O’Brien has written in The Interim, Pearson was also pressured by abortionist Henry Morgentaler, who wrote the prime minister to inform him that Pearson’s son-in-law was among those whose wives and mistresses had procured an abortion.
Politicians at the federal and provincial level introduced private members’ bills liberalizing abortion and contraception, putting pressure on the Pearson government. Liberal MP Ian Wahn claimed that tens of thousands of women obtained illegal abortions and the routine violation of the law necessitated that the law be changed. NDP MPP Stephen Lewis’ bill in Ontario died on the Order Paper when a provincial election was called in 1967. Despite the fact that abortion was in the Criminal Code, parliamentarians examined the issue of abortion in the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, suggesting they considered it a health issue rather than a legal one. The influence of the Canadian Medical Association’s agitation was clear.
The influence of feminists soon became apparent as the movement to codify the practice of abortion gave way to the view that abortion was a matter of choice. Without the ability to eliminate their children in the womb, women’s liberation would never be realized.
In its May 1967 Speech from the Throne, the Pearson government committed itself to liberalizing divorce but made no mention of abortion. That year, Pearson appointed a young MP, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as justice minister. By October, the Standing Committee was hearing testimony on abortion. In December, the committee released an interim report calling for revision of the Criminal Code to permit abortion and called upon Parliament to further study the issue. The next day, Trudeau announced the government would liberalize abortion law in an Omnibus Bill dealing with dozens of issues from breathalyzers to divorce, from passport regulations to homosexual activity. And, of course, abortion. First reading of the bill occurred as MPs were preparing to return home for the Christmas break.
The Omnibus Bill maintained abortion as a criminal offense, Section 251 of the Criminal Code, but permitted it when an application for an abortion was accepted by the majority of a three-person therapeutic abortion committee (TAC). The abortion had to be carried out in a hospital, thereby making stand-alone abortuaries illegal. The TACs were required to consider not only cases where a mother’s life was in danger, but when her health “was” or “would be likely” affected by the continuation of the pregnancy. Health of the mother included emotional health. Soon, pro-life groups were complaining that TACs were rubber-stamping almost every application, and abortion became the second most common surgery in Canada after tonsillectomies.
Pearson would resign as prime minister in 1968 and Pierre Trudeau, who had made a name for himself handling the abortion file as justice minister, won the Liberal leadership contest in June. C-195, the Omnibus Bill, had died on the Order Paper when Parliament was prorogued for the leadership contest. Trudeau appointed John Turner to replace him as justice minister and on July 6, Turner re-introduced the Omnibus Bill. After another of hearings and votes, the bill was ready for final consideration in May 1969. Turner agreed to an amendment to separate abortion from the Omnibus Bill, but it was defeated. Five days later, on May 14, the Omnibus Bill was passed. The Globe and Mail called it a “great day” in its editorial.
Over the next two decades, Henry Morgentaler waged legal battles to remove abortion from the Criminal Code completely, end the therapeutic abortion committees, and permit freestanding abortion facilities. Those battles ended in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada threw out Section 251, effectively making Canada a country without an abortion law. The Supreme Court did not rule there was a right to abortion. It found the existing law unconstitutional on narrow, technical grounds. Save for a pair of attempts to legislate abortion by the Mulroney government – two laws that would have effectively codified abortion rights in Canada – Parliament and government has generally shied away from dealing with the abortion issue.
In the 50 years since abortion was decriminalized, approximately four million preborn babies have been killed by abortion, a number equivalent to the population of the fourth most populous province, Alberta. About 100,000 preborn children are killed annually by surgical and chemical abortions. That’s equivalent to the loss of a city the size of Moncton, Milton, or Red Deer each and every year.
The pro-life movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s said that if children could be killed by abortion at the beginning of life’s journey, it would not be long until euthanasia became legal as a solution to problems at the other end of life. Euthanasia became legal in Canada in 2016. Meanwhile, schools are being shuttered in parts of the country, especially Atlantic Canada and in rural communities, where depopulation has begun. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an average of 24 Ontario schools closed each year, but by the early 2000s that number grew to 52 schools annually. Considering abortion was legalized in 1969 and came to be used as a form of backup birth control by the 1980s, it is not difficult to link cause and effect with the accelerating school closures.
There is a growing literature that women’s physical and psychological health are negatively affected by abortion, a phenomenon given living witness to in the personal stories of the mothers who are Silent No More. Getting figures for the financial cost of abortion is difficult – in 1995, the Library of Parliament Research Branch said determining the cost of abortion is a “complex and inexact process” – but pro-abortion and pro-life groups seem to agree that procuring an abortion costs the system about $1,000 a piece. At 100,000 abortions annually, we’re talking about an approximately $100 million annual price tag for abortions before taking into account dealing with immediate side-effects such as infections or long-term consequences such as fertility problems or mental health issues.
Abortion is also impacting public finance. With declining birth rates (which are also affected by birth control and other lifestyle choices), there are fewer workers per retiree and fewer taxpayers to cover the costs of Canada’s socialized health care system. In recent years, Canada has more people joining the ranks of seniors over 65 than are being born, creating a population pattern that most demographers do not consider sustainable.
For five decades abortion has seemed to corrupt our politics and our culture. Often the pro-life view is censored, from universities disallowing pro-life student groups or speakers, to provincially enacted bubble zone laws. Abortion often seems the third rail of politics, with media gatekeepers, party leaders, and senior staff colluding to prevent discussion of pro-life and even punishing those few politicians willing to raise the issue. It is generally assumed that no pro-life politician can be elected party leader or premier/prime minister even while socially conservative candidates continue to win leadership races.
Fifty years after Pierre Trudeau decriminalized abortion, his son, Justin, is likewise celebrating abortion. He has ruled that no pro-lifer can run for the Liberal Party, and joked that he would be willing to see Quebec separate if English Canada ever recriminalized abortion. He has committed Canada to being a world leader in promoting abortion in the developing world by giving more than $650 million in foreign aid to provide abortion and change laws and cultural mores. And he has required employers of summer students to attest to their own commitment to Charter “values” including abortion. None of this should be a surprise, though, considering Justin Trudeau’s radically pro-abortion views. Seven months before being elected Prime Minister, Trudeau delivered a speech at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada on March 9, 2015, titled, “Canadian Liberty and the Politics of Fear.” In it, he called abortion Canada’s greatest accomplishment. Talking about Canada’s “shared values,” he celebrated the strides women have made toward equality, saying, “the Canada we know today is unimaginable without widely available birth-control and the legalization of choice.” Trudeau continued: “Every conceivable measure of inclusion and progress has moved in the right direction since women gained legally protected reproductive freedom in Canada. From workforce participation to educational attainment to representation in the corridors of economic and political power.”
Beyond costs, public policy, choice, politics, and all that, is the fundamental fact that abortion takes a human life. The Day of Infamy 50 years ago is Canada’s five decades of shame, notwithstanding Justin Trudeau’s celebration of abortion.
The National March for Life in Ottawa this year marks 50 years of abortion on demand in Canada. Campaign Life Coalition national president Jeff Gunnarson said “we march in memory of more than four million children killed by abortion over the past five decades and we march to call upon legislators to end this 50-year-long assault on human life.”