In May of 1970, three dozen women entered the House of Commons in Ottawa and chained themselves to their seats. They interrupted debate on the floor by reciting a prepared speech and chanting for free abortion on demand. They were forcibly removed from the building, and their interruption caused the first ever adjournment of Canadian Parliament in 103 years.
This act of civil disobedience was the culmination of the Abortion Caravan, a group of pro-choice activists who drove from Vancouver to Ottawa, stopping in cities and towns along the way to build support and educate the people about the state of abortion access in Canada. At the time, eighteen years before the groundbreaking Morgentaler decision, abortion was only available to women who stood successfully before a Therapeutic Abortion Committee consisting of three (overwhelmingly male) doctors who would deem her suitably unfit – in mind or body – to carry a pregnancy to term.
When the Abortion Caravan arrived in Ottawa it was five hundred strong and fierce as all get-out; they dressed in mourning clothes and carried a black coffin bedecked with coat hangers, which they left at the front door of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s official residence.
The Abortion Caravan was instrumental in galvanizing public support for abortion rights in Canada, and the grassroots, collective action of the Vancouver Women’s Caucus (the group who planned the caravan) laid the foundation for Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s struggle with – and eventual triumph over – abortion laws in this country. Most people with a vague understanding of the history of abortion in Canada know about R v. Morgentaler. But Dr. Morgentaler, although a courageous man and a determined fighter, did not legalize abortion in this country on his own. Not only was he surrounded and supported by fierce pro-choice activists – most of whom were women – his work was built on an existing, established movement of equally courageous activists; women who not only chained themselves to chairs in Parliament, but who also risked their freedom, jobs, and sometimes their lives to help others access safe and necessary medical care.
It is so important to remember the history of the Abortion Caravan, not least of all because it happened so relatively recently. But it is also important to remember and honour this history because we should never confuse the Abortion Caravan with the “New Abortion Caravan”, an initiative of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, a truly loathesome group of people who wish to kick women right back to 1970 (or earlier if they can!). Please be on the lookout for these assholes and their big truck decorated with fetus gorn; they have yet to stop in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Brampton, London, Toronto and Ottawa. If you are in one of these cities, please join a counter-protest if you can. Let’s defend our history from a bunch of misogynist control freaks trying to take a big steaming dump all over it, shall we?
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