The Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) was started in 1982 by women health care workers from the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre, Hassle Free Clinic, and the Birth Control and VD Information Centre in Toronto. It redefined what was meant by the right to choose. It stated clearly that to have real choices in our lives we need decent jobs, childcare, employment equity, the right to live freely and openly no matter our sexuality, the right to have the children we choose to have, an end to forced or coerced sterilization, racial and sexual harassment and of course the right to full access to free abortion.
From 1969 to 1988 women could only receive an abortion in Canada if a Therapeutic Abortion Committe composed of three doctors at a hospital decided her life or health was in danger. Most hospitals didn’t set up such committees, and for those that did it could take up to 6-8 weeks to process an application. There was access, but it was very privileged access. For young women, immigrant women, women of colour, poor women, rural women, those on reserves and so many more it was extremely difficult.
OCAC wanted to challenge a system that was denying abortion to so many and was racist and class biased in its application. Working with Dr. Henry Morgentaler, OCAC helped to establish an illegal abortion clinic in Toronto to challenge the federal law. It became a symbol of resistance to an unjust law. Along with allies in the trade union movement, communities of colour, faith based organizations, students and many others OCAC built a broad movement across the country. The clinic was raided and the doctors were arrested but they were acquitted by a jury in spite of the fact that they clearly broke the law. This was because of the strong mobilizations involving hundreds of thousands of people. This was appealed by the state and after a long struggle the federal law was overturned by an historic decision in January 1988 by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Clinics were established in many provinces providing abortions, but as important as this victory was the struggles continued. Provinces such as New Brunswick still don’t fund clinic abortions. Only 16% of hospitals provide abortions, 75% are done in clinics which are primarily in urban areas. There are still significant access problems and harassment of those trying to enter abortion facilities. Mifegymiso, the medication for early abortions, is still not funded in Saskatchewan.
The anti-choice has been emboldened by the situation in the United States limiting abortion and we must be very vigilant in Canada to maintain the gains that we have made and move forward so that all have full access to free abortion and the services and resources needed to have real choices in our lives.