The forgotten history of Canadian women who travelled around the world for abortions

Canada's history of abortion travel provides insight into the barriers that continue to exist for women across the country seeking the procedure today
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In 1969, a Toronto woman became panicked when she learned she was pregnant. She had recently switched to a new birth control pill, which had clearly failed. The idea of abortion had never occurred to her until then, but now she was determined to end a pregnancy that she did not want. And she was willing to travel thousands of miles to do so.

This forgotten history of women travelling abroad for abortions decades ago provides insight into the barriers that continue to exist for women across the country today, even though the procedure is completely legal.

This is especially the case for marginalized women and those who live in smaller or remote communities. And as a crackdown on abortion continues in the U.S., the patchwork of access that exists in Canada has garnered renewed scrutiny.

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The woman, who was 36 years old at the time, chronicled the rest of her abortion journey anonymously in a 1969 article in the Toronto Star entitled “Toronto mother tells of her experiences in having a legal abortion in London.”

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It was written as proposed federal legislation that would legalize abortion, but only very limited in cases, was making its way through Parliament.

She and her husband, were satisfied with their one child. Plus, she had almost died of a breast infection after her child was born.  “It would be foolish to risk my health by attempting to have more children,” the woman wrote.

A few weeks earlier, her gynecologist — described by her as “one of Toronto’s most liberal” — refused to refer her for an abortion, even on the basis of her medical concerns. So she decided to do what thousands of other Canadian women did at that time: hop on a plane or drive for hours to get the procedure wherever they could.

In her case, luck and circumstance afforded her the ability to travel to London, England.

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By that time, at least two reputable London physicians had set up practices specifically geared to accommodating North American patients “quickly,” the woman wrote. According to the article, an estimated 15,000 foreign women came to Britain during the year after the government liberalized its abortion law in 1968 to allow the procedure for women if two doctors signed off that childbirth would harm their physical or mental health.

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The foyer of the London clinic was reportedly lined with luggage adorned with Pan Am and TWA tags.

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“These Canadians,” the clinic nurse grumbled to the Toronto woman upon her arrival. “They think they can come in here any time. We’re choc-a-bloc this week.”

After the procedure, the woman described feeling a bit sore, but relieved.

“In spite of the trouble and expense we felt very fortunate in being able to get out of a worrying situation,” she wrote. “I certainly had no regrets except for one major one. It seems to me everyone should have the right to make such a decision, and, in Canada, they don’t.”

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Christabelle Sethna, a professor at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa, researches the history of sex education and abortion and said this woman’s story, and the history of Canadian women having to travel for abortions both when they were illegal and legal, remains relevant today.

Sethna’s research on abortion travel published in 2011, based in part on accounts such as the one in the Toronto Star and other publications, shows how after abortion first became legal in Canada in 1969 (that law was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988), feminist groups decried it as too restrictive and limited in scope. Women continued to go elsewhere where access to abortion was easier.

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Between 1970 and 1971 alone, 4,437 Canadian women travelled to New York for abortions. And 5,000 more did the same the following year.

Similar patterns of travel still continue, she said.

“We are advantaged because most of our population then and now is exists along the border. … And there’s also evidence of groups of women organizing from Canada to cross the border into the U.S.,” Sethna told Global News. “Today we have late-term abortions available in certain parts of the United States. And if a woman can’t get a late-term abortion in Canada, she can go to the United States.”

But beyond the rare instances of late-term abortions, many women in Canada, especially those in remote or conservative communities, still have difficulty accessing abortion services during the early months of pregnancy. This includes access to the abortion pill Mifegymiso, which was approved in Canada in 2015 and can be prescribed by a family doctor and taken at home. A recent investigation by the Globe and Mail found that many women across Canada are forced to travel long distances to get it. 

The earlier a woman has an abortion, the safer it is, the better it is,” Sethna said.

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And that access, and what is covered by the province or territory, is inconsistent. For instance, New Brunswick does not provide any funding to abortion clinics. Abortions are only covered if they are performed in a hospital. And in northern communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, there may be no abortion provider at all.

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Sethna says the burden of travel not only prolongs the pregnancy but also adds ancillary costs for the woman, including travel expenses and time off work, if that is an option.

“The same socio-economic disparities that earlier prevented marginalized women from travelling to access abortion services currently force them to journey to hospitals and clinics outside their home communities,” Sethna wrote in 2011.  

“The lack of attention paid to these journeys not only highlights the vulnerability of this population but also provides confirmation that abortion need not be illegal in order to be inaccessible to many women.”

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