Henry Morgentaler changed things. Not many mortal men (or women) can make that claim, but the changes he set in motion in Canada have had a profound effect on virtually the whole of Canadian society, no more so than on women in their child-bearing years.
I remember back when dark whispers of back alley and coat-hanger abortions haunted the dreams of teenagers who were, or wanted to be, sexually active – promiscuous, our parents would have called it; daring, the rest of us would have claimed.
I remember a girl in my high school class, heavily pregnant, standing in the far corner of the school playing field watching the rest of us playing softball. She had done ‘the right thing’ and left school to marry the father of her unborn child. He left school, too, and worked in produce at the local supermarket. They lived in her parents’ basement and went on to have a second child. Then their marriage broke down and neither had the education to get on in life. No doubt their children were glad to have been born, but even then, at the early, innocent age I was, I thought it was wrong. Dr. Morgentaler made it possible for girls like her to make another choice – a safe choice. He was right, but, in my view, for the wrong reasons.
In the 1990’s, when our Cabinet was wrestling with what to do in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Canada’s abortion law, I often thought of my old classmate, by then long disappeared from my world. What would she have wrestled with in a post-Morgentaler world?
Our Cabinet was split, just as the country was, with strong – not to say hysterical – feelings on both sides. On the one hand, the feminist argument that women should control their own bodies – a position I have always thought rather trite. The opposing view that life begins at conception and that a woman should bear her child to term no matter what: certainly not trite, but irresponsible. It is not “society” or the church and almost never the father who will see the fetus through babyhood and childhood to adulthood – it is the mother, the woman who bears the child, sometimes with help, sometimes not.
Without question there is a profoundly moral decision to be made on whether or not to end a pregnancy. The only issue is who makes it. The State, that bears no responsibility? The father, who may or may not involve himself in the consequences? I fervently believe it is the Mother’s decision alone, after discussing it (or not) with people she respects. Do we honestly think so little of a woman’s ability to judge for herself that we would remove from her control over the most important moral choice she will make in her lifetime?
In 1992 the Cabinet’s proposal to re-legislate, in a way so convoluted that I can’t even remember how – but, as so often, an attempt to please everyone (or not displease anyone) was killed in the Senate: in today’s heated environment an important reminder of why we have an upper chamber.
Barbara McDougall was Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993