Stay tuned to Abortion Gang for more blog posts on CLPP!
Stay tuned to Abortion Gang for more blog posts on CLPP!
Crossposted with permission.
Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th to mark the certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that extended the right to vote to women.
While this is an occasion to celebrate, there are a few myths, lies, and blatant rewrites of history that pop up every year that should be addressed. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a full, intersectional history of the battle for suffrage, but rather an attempt to muddy the conversation about which women we’re really talking about when we speak of “women’s equality.”
Myth: The 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote.
Fact: No one “gave” or “granted” women anything. Suffrage is a right one is born with in a free democracy, a right that was denied to women by the founders of our nation who did not see white women and all folks of color as human enough to deserve it. Organizers endured heckling, ostracization, beatings, force feedings and, in some cases, even death to get the 19th amendment passed — it was a fight for justice too long denied, not a polite request finally granted.
Lie: The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women.
Truth: This is only true if your definition of “women” is “white, cisgender, documented women.” Women and men of color, especially in the South, continued to face barriers to voting in the form of literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and Jim Crow laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which means that many folks of color will again be disenfranchised under the same ideology that assumes elected white people get to decide who “deserves” the right of suffrage. (See:North Carolina and Texas.) Additionally, undocumented women and men, who contribute to the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, are still denied the right to vote on the policies that impact their lives and those of their families. Women who have been convicted of felonies are also barred from voting. Voter ID laws, which require the gender one was assigned at birth to match the gender one actually is, prohibit many trans* folks from accessing the polls as well.
Historical Rewrite: White women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul thought up, led, and won the battle for suffrage.
Historical Truth: While those names are the ones most often mentioned in history books, those same texts both fail to recognize the women and men of color who fought for suffrage and cover up the fact that many of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement were pretty damn racist. They also fail to mention that early white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony were radicalizedby interacting with Iroquois women, who were voting members on tribal councils and had the final say on the appointment of village chiefs. The suffragists who actually credited Native women’s influence on their organizing did so only to position indigenous cultures as “savage” in order shame white men into being more “enlightened” than Native peoples. The same white women who were spurred to action by Native women’s roles later aligned themselves with organizations that fought for the disenfranchisement of “blanketed Indians.”
Many of the staunchest advocates for universal suffrage were abolitionists. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, all Black women, were leaders in the suffrage movement who faced discrimination from their white “sisters” in the fight. The National Women’s Suffrage Association’s official position was that suffrage for white women should come first, at the expense of voting rights for women and men of color. During the famed 1913 march, Alice Paul ordered Black women to march at the back in order to avoid offending racist white Southern women — Ida B. Wells refused and slipped out of the line to take her rightful place in the Illinois delegation at the front of the parade. Susan B. Anthony, in just one of her many racist oppressions, was instrumental in the exclusion of ardent women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta.
Myth, Lie, and Historical Rewrite: “Women’s Equality” and the continued fight for women’s rights in 2013 is inclusive of all women.
Sad but important truth: It’s not.
The “mainstream” feminist movement of today — meaning the writing, organizing, and other work that gets the most attention, resources, and privilege — remains centered on the rights, lives, and experiences of white, non-Native, cisgender, documented, straight, able-bodied women. Women whose identities match these privilege sets, women like me, actively appropriate the work of women whose do not, erase their histories, assail their identities and set up fiscal, political, social, and cultural barriers in order to interrupt and negate the organizing of women of color, trans* folks, disabled people, undocumented people, and those who live their lives at the intersections of those identities. Just check out #solidarityisforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall and explainedhere, and #dearcispeople. Google Cece McDonald and #girlslikeus. See women’s groups that claim to be fighting for all women who endorse candidates who voted for Stop and Frisk and refuse to support comprehensive immigration reform or go to the mat for Native women’s inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act. The list goes on and on.
Women’s Equality Day has a noble goal: uplift the history of the struggle for women’s rights and highlight the continued work toward gender justice. But if we aren’t committed to problematizing the history we’ve been taught, to centering the work of marginalized folks and learning the histories that have been erased from textbooks, and to coming to terms with the fact that when many feminists say they work for women’s equality but really just mean some women, then we’re just celebrating and continuing oppression.
I don’t have the answer to ending that continued oppression but I do know that it’s not the feminist movement that I want or that anyone needs. As a counterpoint to the unexamined celebratory links going around today, I’ve begun to compile a list of resources that celebrate the heroines who’ve been erased from history and examine the history of oppression within the suffrage movement that continues today. If you have other links, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.
How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote — Monée Fields-White
How Native Americans Influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement — Jessica Diemer-Eaton
Not All Women Won the Right to Vote Today — Renee Martin
Homespun Heroines And Other Women of Distinction — compiled and edited by Hallie Quinn
African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 — (book) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton (Author), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Author), Martha Prescod Norman (Author), Bettina Aptheker (Author), Ann D. Gordon (Editor), Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor)
African American Women In The Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 — (book) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn
This morning Dr. Henry Morgentaler died of a heart attack in his Toronto home. He was 90 years old, in increasingly failing health these last few years, and with a lifetime – many lifetimes – of work behind him. May we one day win a world where all abortion providers can safely die of old age in their own homes. Thank goodness Dr. Morgentaler was allowed that.
I know that everyone will be talking about who Dr. Morgentaler was, what he did and why he was important. That information is easy to find. All I know is who he was to me – a very human hero, a real person who did a remarkable thing; after escaping with his life from a concentration camp, he willingly put that life at risk to make the world a better place for women.
Dr. Morgentaler exemplifies allyship. He was willing to sacrifice everything he earned – his reputation, his medical licence, his practice, his family, and his freedom – to improve the lot of a group he didn’t belong to. He saw injustice and saw his own power to make change and he did it.
In his early life, Dr. M. had the good fortune to escape darkness, but then he had the courage to spend the rest of his life attempting to bring others up into the light. His work in Canada literally saved lives – directly, for many of the women to whom he provided abortions (particularly when it was illegal), and indirectly for thousands of people, by being instrumental in striking down the abortion law.
The only time I ever met Dr. Morgentaler was two and a half years ago, at an end of year staff dinner when I worked at his clinic here in Toronto. For his toast he said a few humble words of gratitude, and then immediately turned the attention back to the roomful of people and insisted the true credit go to us. He was not a perfect person – nobody is – but as far as heroes go, we could have done a lot worse.
Though I didn’t know him, Dr. Morgentaler’s work changed my life for the better. Because of him, abortion is legal in this country and even though there’s a long way still to go, if I get pregnant that’s a pretty significant hurdle I don’t have to jump. Not to mention the two amazing jobs I’ve had because of him, and everything that brought me – spirited allies, lifelong friendships, life-changing experiences and a sense of purpose. His fight set this country on fire; he never set his torch down for a second, so damned if I will either.
In my mind I see Dr. Morgentaler as having given birth (ha!) to generations of feminist activists, I guess sort of springing fully formed from his head like Athena from the head of Zeus. In illegally performing abortions in defiance of an unjust law, he not only challenged the idea of the law as a standard of morality, he also freed us up to fight for justice in our own way. We pay tribute to Henry when we expand and push beyond abortion rights and into sexual and reproductive justice for all people, in every way. For all his great heroism, Dr. Morgentaler was just the spark. We are the powder keg.
Anyway, what I know is that Dr. Henry Morgentaler changed Canada for the better, and showed us who we truly could be in this country; he was an immigrant who, through hard work, became a respected doctor, and then refused to enjoy the rewards of a hard-won life when he could see that others still suffered. He represented the best of us.
Thank you Dr. Morgentaler, and goodbye – you have truly earned your rest.
Last night, PBS aired MAKERS: How Women Made America, a three-hour look at the history and evolution of the women’s movement in the United States. If you missed it, the whole thing can be viewed online.
It’s difficult to distill 50 years of diverse, rapidly evolving, and (necessarily and often productively) contradictory feminist history, work and ideas into a documentary format at all, even if given an almost unprecedented amount of airtime to do it in. It’s important to note, right off the bat, that MAKERS relied heavily on stories told by and about the women whose identities and concerns — white, cisgender, documented, and able-bodied — have and continue to be privileged by mainstream feminism. While the film featured noted women of color and queer identified activists, their role was mostly presented as “challengers” to racism and homophobia within the mainstream feminist movement, rather than as an integral part of building that movement, now and then, to serve more people better. And it is outright shameful that MAKERS eliminated trans* folks from the history of feminism, especially since the movement and some its leaders both borrowed from trans* women’s organizing in their tactics while at the same time tearing down those women and their organizing.
But here is why I am grateful that MAKERS exists, not as the definitive version of feminist history but as a first step toward reappearing women into mainstream history: the film was, without a doubt, a more comprehensive and thoughtful look at the history of the women’s liberation movement than most US students ever learn in school — and now it exists as a resource to be used by educators who’ve either been unable to use existing resources (“too radical” or “not approved”) or simply did not know about them. There is a tremendous opportunity for the film to be paired with additional resources in classroom settings at all levels that expands upon the content in the film and introduces some of the work and leaders who were not featured on the screen.
I’m also pleased with how MAKERS contextualized the work of the women’s movement specifically as organizing. One of the most annoying forms of backlash is the myth that the feminist movement consisted of a bunch of women getting ragey and their collective rage just magically changed the world. Yes, women got ragey en masse, but many of those enraged women were organizers, coming out of the labor, civil rights, trans and queer liberation movements and there was (lots of) strategy that led to the changes, alongside raw emotion. It’s important for younger feminists to see that we are part of a long line of strategists who were also figuring out when to act, when to hold your fire, how to deal with the media narrative, and how to most effectively message the work.
The most disappointing part of MAKERS, to me, was, well…me. The final hour focused on the younger waves of feminism and its tone was epitomized by anti-labor leader Michelle Rhee speaking about her desire to cook and do laundry as an example of how younger women don’t believe they need feminism anymore. I was the sole “young feminist” — as in, under 35 — featured in the broadcast and my one line was about not caring if young people call themselves “feminists” or “turtles” as long as they are doing pro-equality work, which we are. The segment also featured Letty Pogrebin providing the tired “if they lose their rights, then they will wake up” warning about and to younger women.
First, I’m not the face of young feminism. Not that there can be one, or that one representative of a movement is ever an effective strategy, but literally, I — a white, cisgender, middle class, documented, able-bodied, educated woman living in New York — am not representative of the wonderful, broad, diverse and complicated movement of my generation that I call the Forth Wave. The younger feminist movement that I know and love is being led by radical women of color, indigenous, queer, and trans* folks of all genders, in all parts of the world and we must insist that these leaders, not those that look like me and have my privilege set, are centered in conversations about the current state of and future of feminism.
Secondly, my praise of the film’s coverage focus on the organizing of the 2nd Wave is what was missing from its look at young feminism. As Jill Filipovic points out at The Guardian, there is an entire generation, ours, that’s been radicalized, working, and movement building online. Blogs and social media are our consciousness raising groups and the spaces in which we are hashing out the diverse ideologies and strategies we use to win gender justice. But to focus solely on the online aspect of young feminism misses the other radical work that’s being done, like abortion funds run by young feminists literally fulfilling Roe’s promise of the right to abortion with access to it, and young people using their bodies to shield patients from anti-abortion protesters as clinic escorts.
Yet, for all its flaws, I liked MAKERS because for the first time I was watching a historical film in a mainstream space and thinking, “THIS. This is my history. This is my legacy, my work, and my responsibility.” It was an “I’m not alone!” moment comparable to when I discovered feminism and that’s the reaction of a women’s history nerd who honestly didn’t learn much new history — I can only imagine what it meant and might mean to people who don’t know most of that history at all.
I’m also comfortable supporting MAKERS because it’s not the end, but the beginning. The press, viewership and online conversation around the premiere demonstrated a hunger for more explorations of women’s history and a mainstream audience for them. In light of this, we should and must push for more historical women’s programming that centers the stories marginalized, minimized, and erased in this one.
We must also, as young feminists, start intentionally recording the history of our own work as history. It took 50 years to get this one made and a lot of what influenced this movie is who is still around to tell the story and who has enough power and privilege to decide what matters and how much time it gets. I’d like to see my generation not make that mistake. As a start, Steph Herold and I co-founded the Feminists of Generation Now pinterest board to highlight the broad scope of organizing being done by young feminists. I’ve already seen and taken part in conversations since the film aired last night about films, books, and shows focused on and led by the Forth Wave and I can’t wait to see where those projects go.
If the measure of a successful television is viewers asking, at the end, “what’s next?’ then MAKERS was a success. And it’s the young feminists who are here, angry, and organizing that are living out the answer.
It is scary to think that when my mother was pregnant with me more than 27 years ago, she would have been required to ask permission of a panel of (mostly male) doctors to have an abortion. Two years after my birth, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code provision relating to abortion and made Canada one of an elite few nations that has no law restricting abortion. While having no laws restricting abortion is an important part of reproductive justice, it is by no means sufficient. The law must also actively protect access and remove all barriers.
Other than piecemeal laws and injunctions protecting individual clinics, many patients attending at private abortion clinics, and sometimes even hospitals, must face protesters simply to get in the door. In Fredericton, New Brunswick, the protestors have their “home base” within 1 foot of the Morgentaler Clinic and are able to physically get in the face of patients. There is no law in N.B. to protect a woman’s right to access abortion services free from harassment. In the case of N.B., the political will to protect women is almost non-existent and so woman are screamed at, shamed, and tormented simply for trying to access healthcare. To add insult to injury, they are forced to pay out of pocket, in violation of the Canada Health Act, or endure the humiliation of asking two doctors for permission to access healthcare. This in a province where I knew a girl who was forced to keep her family doctor despite his refusal to provide her with contraception because she was unmarried, because of a shortage of family doctors. She certainly would not be able to get a referral from him, and if not him, who? Dr. Morgentaler has launched yet another legal case against the province of N.B. for their violation of the Canada Health Act. Similar lawsuits in other provinces started by Dr. Morgentaler have been successful and it seems that it is only a matter of time before this is the case in N.B.; however the Province has dragged the case along for almost 10 years since it was launched in 2003, with procedural motions and hopeless appeals.
In Ontario, there are laws and injunctions meant to protect women from harassment when attending at clinics, except there are a handful of anti-choicers who show flagrant disregard for the law and not only protest outside the clinic, but trespass and enter the clinics so as to terrify, torment, and shame the patients and clinic staff. The courts continually throw these individuals in jail but the moment they walk free, buoyed by the support of an ever dwindling number of Canadians, they are immediately back to their old tricks. The laws protecting clinics and women are weak and anti-choice politicians award medals to the individuals who perpetually break the law.
Unfortunately for women in Canada, Dr. Morgentaler, our tireless crusader, is aging. He may have survived the Holocaust, but he will never be able to cheat death. Without him I have serious concerns about where we will go from here. It takes significant pressure from individuals to effect political change and aside from a few kamikaze politicians, most will not touch abortion, pro or con, with a 10-foot pole; it is political suicide in Canada. Although the majority of Canadians support unrestricted access to abortion in all circumstances (up 9% between February and October 2012), they are blissfully unaware of how difficult it is for underprivileged women to access abortion services. Women in PEI must travel out of province for an abortion and in order for it to be covered by their provincial healthcare it must be done in a hospital and she must have a referral. The far north of Canada has very limited abortion services, forcing women to embark on hours-long travel at great personal expense.
Although effecting political change requires large numbers of supporters, effecting change through the courts can be done if one is willing to be the “face” of abortion rights. Dr. Morgentaler has dedicated his life to that task. He has been involved in dozens of lawsuits across the country with great success. He can gather the financial resources that it takes and he is not easily intimidated. Unfortunately, there is a minimum of 2 levels of court that every case has to proceed through provincially before reaching the Supreme Court, where decisions apply to all provinces. Without Dr. Morgentaler I have serious concerns about how far the law will advance. To date, in Canada, judge made law has strengthened abortion rights almost exclusively; however the common law is a slow beast. It is not enough to rely on no legal restrictions; we must fight for the positive right to access abortion without shame or barriers of any kind. The law must actively enforce access and punish those individuals or politicians who interfere. Access to reproductive justice must be a positive right, just as one has the right to freedom of religion or freedom of speech, women must have the right to abortion and reproductive justice.
In the next 25 years, the law must create a positive right to abortion so that every single woman who wants an abortion can receive one without delay and without any financial burden more than the cost of a bus ticket. Women, men, and doctors must bring lawsuits and all pro-women individuals must pressure their politicians to do more. Where we could rely on Dr. Morgentaler to tackle every abortion-related issue in the past, the same cannot be said of many others. It is a heavy burden and Dr. Morgentaler has borne it with the grace and strength of character reserved for so very few on this Earth. Thousands of Canadian women literally owe him their dreams and their lives.
Thank you Henry.
– Not Guilty
Where does activism go from here?
From an activist’s perspective, the Morgentaler decision can tell us two things: first, that ordinary people working together can change the law (for while some of the folks who rallied around Dr. Morgentaler during his struggle were influencial lawyers and doctors, for the most part it was grassroots activists who pushed the movement forward); and secondly, that changes in the law are not enough to combat systemic inequality; a system of which the law is a participating component.
In Canada today, as it was 25 years ago, it is the poor who are disproportionately disadvantaged by barriers to reproductive and sexual health services (including abortion). And despite the lack of legal barriers in comparison with other countries, significant obstacles do still need to be overcome. It doesn’t really matter if abortion is legal when there isn’t a doctor in your community who will perform one, for example. Or if there is a doctor – even a clinic – but the cost is prohibitive. In Fredericton it costs $700+ to obtain an abortion. Some folks in urban Toronto might not bat an eye at that sum, but in the Maritimes there are fewer people who have that kind of cash lying around. And money is simply one possible obstacle among many.
Activists believe a better world is possible. That’s the whole point of activism. In the case of abortion in Canada, it seems like much time is spent – especially in the urban centres where abortion is readily available – celebrating our country’s progressive laws, and congratulating an older generation of activists who made them possible. Of course we know that what our mothers and grandmothers did was courageous, and that it changed the world for the better. I was four years old when the Morgentaler decision came down – I could never begin to understand what it was like before that. But it’s been twenty-five years, and our poor sisters, our rural sisters, our Northern sisters, our First Nations sisters, our queer sisters and our racialized sisters continue to struggle. Why haven’t we listened to them, all this time?
When you are a white, cis woman from a middle class background, it is difficult to see beyond how easy the Morgentaler decision has made things for you. But one thing the Idle No More movement should show us is that when we hold the reins, the only ones served are ourselves. The pro-choice movement in Canada did a great job getting the abortion law struck down, but it is time for us to step back and add our voices in support of a larger movement – a reproductive justice movement – that is led by people tired of trickle-down activism.
A lack of abortion laws means little without free and accessible birth control, comprehensive sex education in all the schools, support and resources for new parents, significant reform to the adoption system, and a national daycare program. And none of that means anything until we learn to respect the sovereignty of the First Nations of this land, the rights of every person to control their own body, and the value of people over money or resources. We have a big mess to untangle. And the our colonial legal system is not going to be that great at untangling it.
But like I said, activists believe a new world is possible. And the youth of this country are making that belief a reality. We just need to listen to them.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. According to a recently released Pew poll, only about 44% of Americans under 30 could identify the Roe decision as having to do with abortion. We know that what matters isn’t that young Americans know all the details of a Supreme Court case that happened before they were born, but instead, that they support abortion rights. And they do, overwhelmingly–almost 70% of young Americans believe abortion should be legal.
Nevertheless, here at the Abortion Gang, we decided to reminise about when we first learned about Roe or abortion rights in honor of today’s momentous anniversary.
Steph: Planned Parenthood’s latest video saying that most people think about abortion as personal, not political, rings true for my first experience with abortion. I always remember being vaguely pro-choice, but I never had to think about what that actually meant until a friend of mine became pregnant while we were in high school. She had an abortion, and for the first time I had to think about access: how would she get to the clinic without a driver’s license? without her parents knowing? how would she pay for it without an income? would she have to skip school for the appointment? what would she say? Thankfully, my friend had a supportive partner who helped her navigate the system with ease, and she had a safe abortion. But I remember in that moment being profoundly glad that she didn’t have to bend the law to access the care she needed. This experience led me to work at an abortion fund all through college, where I learned the painful in and outs of the Hyde Amendment, and how the legality of abortion doesn’t mean that everyone is able to access it as easily as my friend did.
Nicole: As a linguistically frustrated high schooler, I replaced French with constitutional law. Though my guidance counselor thought it the kiss of college admissions death, that class introduced me to Roe, and the wider world of social justice. I have yet to look back.
Megan S.: I don’t know how I learned about Roe, but I do know how I learned about abortion access. I started college identifying as a feminist but not involved in abortion activism or familiar with reproductive justice issues. I considered myself to be pro-choice, but I didn’t think anything more of it than that. My sophomore year I started a work-study job at an abortion fund, which opened my eyes to the struggles of people trying to obtain abortion care. That experience made me question the differences between legality and reality. Although Roe was passed in 1973, it certainly did not and does not mean that all people have equal say in their bodily autonomy or equitable access to reproductive health services. My experiences at an abortion fund challenged me, changed me, and made me want to devote my life and work to ensure that people did not have to struggle to obtain reproductive health care.
I don’t know how I learned about Roe, but I do know how I want to teach my children about it. I want them to think of it as a momentous victory and to celebrate it as such. I also do not want them to think of it as the final piece of our fight for reproductive rights, but instead as a critical first step toward reproductive justice for all people.
Rachel: I’m pretty sure I first learned about Roe v. Wade from watching the national nightly news. When I was growing up it was my family’s habit to watch the news during dinner. My most distinctive memory of Roe came from the coverage of the 1991 Wichita, Kansas protests lead by Randall Terry (the so-called “Summer of Mercy” campaign). I remember the protests sparked days of national news coverage. To be on the national nightly news for several days in a row was a big deal, even more so before there were multiple cable news networks. I would have been 15 in 1991, and I’m sure I had heard of “abortion” before, but the sheer chaos and anger of the Wichita, Kansas protests is where my specific memory begins. At some point watching the news I asked my father why he was pro-choice, and I remember him saying to me he didn’t want any politician telling his daughters what they could do with their bodies.
Shelby: I think I may have heard the word Roe uttered a few times in my younger, Southern Baptist years in the same tone one uses to talk about Hitler, but I don’t recall ever connecting how it had anything to do with the tiny plastic fetuses they handed out at church presentations.
The first time I remember really thinking about Roe was when I met the 2 NY women who came to Lubbock to make the film that would eventually be The Education of Shelby Knox. They’d done a film called Live Free or Die about Dr. Wayne Goldner in NH, who was fighting a Catholic hospital merger in New Hampshire and had been friends with Dr. Slepian, who was killed for providing abortions. They told me it had showed at the Roe v. Wade 30th anniversary celebration and I remember finding it curious that people celebrated a Supreme Court decision. Only when I started working in the sex ed world and with older, more seasoned feminists did I understand the context of the case and the celebrations. By the time I was a 17 year-old senior in high school, I wrote a paper in Government class defending the case — and realized that the school computers had a block on accessing anything about it other than anti-choice websites. By the time I was 21, I was a full fledged reproductive justice activist who understood that Roe was a crucial first step but that there was still a long way to go before a theoretical right is a reality for all people, all the time.
Today, I’m 26, the same age Sarah Weddington was when she argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. When I met her and realized how young she had been when she changed history, it was a confirmation that a young feminist from Texas like me could really change the world for women…because one already had.
When did you first learn about Roe? What did you learn? From whom? Tell us in the comments.
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?
More info here.