May 6, 1967 • SW Magazine

How the Hospitals Broke the Great Abortion Silence

Ten strong reasons why the abortion ban has been ignored can be found in these ten cases culled from hospitals across our country

by WALTER STEWART, SW Magazine staff writer

For years, Canadian doctors have been stretching the law that makes therapeutic abortions illegal; last week some of them set out to smash it, and it appears they have won: The law will be changed.

The Canadian Criminal Code contains two sections dealing with abortions; Section 209 makes it illegal to kill an unborn child except to save the mother’s life – which may be interpreted as saving the mother from becoming a mental or physical wreck; Sections 207-8, however, state flatly that it is a crime to cause an abortion for any reason, and set out penalties of life imprisonment for the abortionist and two years in jail for the woman who is aborted.

In the shadow of this contradiction, Canadian hospitals (except Roman Catholic hospitals, where taking the life of a foetus for any reason is regarded as murder) have applied the more lenient section and ignored the outright prohibition. This practice has been well known, but never advertised, because, if the law were strictly applied, a doctor performing no more than his duty could wind up in prison. The break came after a staff meeting at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto on Monday, April 10. Dr. Walter Hannah, chief of obstetrics (and, incidentally, Prime Minister Pearson’s son-in-law), told his colleagues the hospital had authorized 12 therapeutic abortions last year, about the same number as every year of the past eight. The figures were to be reported to the hospital’s board of governors the next day.

So they were, but, in the meantime, someone at the meeting had tipped off the newspapers. “We don’t know how the story got out,” said Dr. Margaret Hill, chief of Women’s College medical staff, “but it certainly has worked out well.”

Within hours, five other Toronto hospitals had joined Women’s College in print, with a list of 38 more abortions performed last year (The Toronto total now reads: Women’s College, 12; Wellesley, 12; Toronto Western, 11; Toronto East General, 7; Doctors’ Hospital, 4, and Humber Memorial, 4. (Toronto General has no 1966 figure, but reported 27 cases for 1965).

In the Ontario legislature, Attorney General Arthur Wishart quickly lined up with the doctors, and Health Minister Dr. Matthew Dymond gave the back of his hand to the Criminal Code prohibition with a statement that “therapeutic abortions are performed and are recognized by every good doctor.”

Before Dr. Hannah could even report to the Board of Governors, the issue had been decided. In Ottawa, his father-in-law rose Tuesday afternoon to tell the House of Commons that legislation to clarify the law on abortions will be introduced at “as early a date as possible.” The change, which will probably make it clear that pregnancy may be terminated when the life or sanity of the mother is, threatened, could be made by the end of June.

Also in Ottawa, a tall, brunette housewife and mother of two, who heads the Association for the Modernization of Canadian Abortion Laws, expressed her delight. “Things are really beginning to roll,” Mrs. Sylvio Perron, 30, told SW Magazine. “Nothing can stop us now.”

Across the nation, most doctors heaved a sigh of relief. “We’ve been on tricky legal grounds,” explained a Vancouver doctor, while a Halifax surgeon added, “We do therapeutic abortions but it’s probably unlawful, although it has been accepted over the years.” One dissenter was a Montreal obstetrician, who thinks “It is better going on with the tolerance within the law as it is now than to change the law.” In his view, “The performance of a therapeutic abortion is repugnant to any obstetrician. His whole career is to preserve life, not destroy it.”

Because of the need for secrecy, the hospitals have never consulted each other about what constitutes proper grounds, and geography may play as great a role as compassion in determining a woman’s chances for an operation.

In the Montreal hospital consulted by SW Magazine, a woman who has contracted German measles during pregnancy (which may cause deformity of the child) would not be considered a candidate for abortion, but she would in Toronto or Halifax. The pregnant victim of rape may well be granted an operation in Winnipeg, but not in Montreal. In Vancouver, the supreme test is whether the life of the mother is in danger, but a Halifax hospital reported this has never been the issue in an abortion performed there. Other grounds, such as the mental health of the mother, have been the issue in Halifax. Psychiatric grounds were given for more than half the cases in two hospitals in Toronto and Winnipeg, but are seldom a factor in an Edmonton institution, and never in a Montreal hospital.

Psychiatric grounds often include a threat by the mother to take her own or the baby’s life, and constitute the single most frequent reason for granting abortions in SW’s spot check. Dr. Lois Plumb, chief of the department of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, explained, “When a woman tells her doctor she is going to destroy herself, she is in real trouble. The pregnancy may be the stress that brings her disturbance to a head, but it is almost never the whole story. These people need help.”

However, the hospital’s screening is strict. Once a woman who threatened suicide was turned down because a psychiatric examination showed she was too stable to go through with her threat. Her bluff was called, and mother and child are doing well.

The contradictory rules applied in various hospitals make it clear open discussion is necessary, and for this, the law must be clarified. If nothing else, the threat to conscientious doctors must be removed by scrapping the unenforced section of the Criminal Code that bans abortions entirely. Ten strong reasons why this ban has been ignored can be found in ten cases culled by SW Magazine from hospitals across the land:

  • Arlene was planning to get married when she became pregnant. She was no careless youngster, but a 38-year-old mother of two teen-age daughters. Her husband had deserted her after five years of marriage and her life had been devoted to bringing up her girls, but when they entered high school, she went back to work, met a man, and became engaged. When she told him she was pregnant, however, the engagement ended abruptly. Arlene later learned the man had a history of mental illness, as well as three former wives. He left Arlene guilty and alone, unable to face her daughters, society or herself. With consummate care, she set out to commit suicide; she read a number of books on nutrition, then went on a diet that avoided every essential food. Her family doctor intervened and was able to have her aborted.
  • Joanne, 30, a quiet, pretty housewife, was the victim of a severe spinal disease which required corrective surgery. While she was still convalescing, she became pregnant, and her doctors felt the strain of childbirth would collapse her spine, resulting in death or permanent paralysis. They had no hesitation in terminating pregnancy.
  • The case was not so simple with Lenore, a 35-year-old married mother of two. Lenore had been a psychiatric patient, and when she told her doctor she would take her own life rather than bear another baby, he believed her. The hospital committee did not, however, and an abortion was refused. Lenore took an overdose of sleeping pills and nearly died; then the hospital believed her, granted the operation.
  • Therese was a victim of rape – or was she? The rather plain, slight, unmarried 20-year-old was certainly pregnant, but the man she accused of attacking her was her boyfriend, and she wouldn’t press charges. Her doctor explained, “When a girl is knocked over the head and dragged into the bushes, the course is clear; if the pregnancy is likely to cause permanent mental damage, it should be ended. But rape is seldom that straightforward; where do you draw the line between permission to go so far end the sudden withdrawal of permission to go further? In other words, what is rape? In this case, there was another complication – Therese had a history of mental illness, and the hospital decided in her favor.
  • “If I have to have a baby,” said Monica, “I will throw him down the cellar stairs.” The 24-year-old, toughly handsome woman was serious; her hostility to children bordered on the psychotic. She had been raised with a younger brother who seemed to get all his parents’ love, and had gradually withdrawn into herself. When her husband’s nephew came to visit, Monica had, in fact, hurled him down the cellar stairs. An operation was granted.
  • Darlene had four small children and didn’t want any more, so she went on birth-control pills. They made her ill, however, and her doctor cut the dosage. Darlene became pregnant again, went into depression, refused to eat, then became ill with a vaginal infection, in hospital, she tried to persuade her doctor she should have an abortion, but he told her she was merely suffering from “housewife-itis”. She began to talk of suicide, and her worried husband called in a psychiatrist, who recommended an abortion. When the hospital wouldn’t agree, she was moved to another hospital, which did.
  • Patricia, a teenage bride, contracted German measles during the first month of her pregnancy. She knew there was a chance her child would be born deformed, and this worry preyed on her mind so severely that a hospital committee decided the danger to her mental stability, as well as the possibility of an irregular birth, justified abortion.
  • “I can’t be pregnant,” Mary told her startled doctor, “I won’t be pretty any more.” Psychiatric examination revealed she had never grown up. As a child, she competed with an elder sister for her mother’s attention, since their father had deserted the family shortly after Mary’s birth. She took on her mother’s bitter views of man and sex and, even after marriage, worried secretly that her mother disapproved of her sleeping with her husband. Pregnancy was too much, a badge of sexuality, a betrayal of her mother. Mary’s slender mental resources began to crumble; she became obsessed with the notion that pregnancy would destroy her. Therapy failed, her depression became acute, so an operation was approved.
  • A week after she left hospital with her new-born baby boy, Louise returned him to the Admittance desk where she explained, “If I have to keep him, I know I’ll hurt him.” Post partum depression is common, but in this case it was part of a history of mental instability stretching back to a cold and loveless childhood. With her husband’s approval, the baby was put out for adoption, and when Louise became pregnant again, doctors heeded the warning, and permitted an abortion
  • Carol, at 35, had already borne five children. With each baby, life seemed to be closing in more and more; she felt ugly and used up; her husband, she was sure, no longer loved her as he had the svelte young woman he married. When she became pregnant a sixth time she stopped eating, stopped caring for her family, retreated into a dark, enclosing shall. Psychiatric treatment failed to restore her self-esteem and reluctantly her pregnancy was terminated. “In a case like this,” a doctor explained, “an abortion is our admission of failure; it shows we couldn’t do anything for her. But what should we do, let her be destroyed?”