July 1962 • Liberty Magazine

Why Abortion Should be Legalized in Canada


50,000 Canadian women yearly face near-murderous operations. Cruel laws aren’t the answer to this agonizing social problem.

At 34, lecturer, social worker and marriage counsellor Benjamin Schlesinger, B.A., M.S.W., Ph.D,, has already had 14 years experience in the field of social relationships. An expert in family life, his experience ranges over work with families, children and immigrants, in universities, social services and community centers. He recently returned from a year’s teaching In India, and is presently lecturing at the School of Social Work of the University of Toronto.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Schlesinger was educated at Montreal’s Sir George Williams College, the University of Toronto and Cornell University, where he obtained his doctoral degree on Child Development and Family Relationships. He is one of just four marriage counsellors in Canada who is a member of the American Association of Marriage Counsellors. Schlesinger is also a member of the Canadian Association of Social Workers, Society for Research in Child Development, National Council on Family Relations and Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.

A few months ago, a prowler raped a 30-year-old housewife in her own home in Toronto.

Two weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant. Distraught, she and her husband went to their family doctor for assistance. The doctor, a friend of mine, later told me what he’d been forced to tell them – that the Criminal Code of Canada forbids him to perform abortions, that he would lose his license if he tried.

Days passed, and the housewife grew more frantic. Then a friend phoned to say she knew someone who’d perform the operation for $300. That same week, in the kitchen of an apartment, without the necessary sanitary precautions, the housewife had her abortion. But a few days later, in pain and bleeding profusely, she had to be admitted to a hospital where the unsatisfactory criminal abortion was completed.

I doubt if she’ll ever forget how she – one of an estimated 50,000 Canadian women every year – was forced into a criminal, near-murderous abortion by our so-called moral and humane laws, and our professional ethics.

Doctors are troubled

Her case illustrates the hypocrisy displayed by the Canadian public and professionals on this touchy subject. Doctors, who have the training to make abortion a harmless operation, have their hands tied by cruel, antiquated Criminal Code laws. They often are forced to send the suffering women into the hands of black market abortionists.

The cruel, confusing and punishing abortion laws of Canada have to be changed now. I suggest abortions be legalized for four reasons:

•           Medical — To be determined by at least two physicians. This has already been done in many hospitals.

•           Mental Health — If a woman is definitely found to be mentally incapable of caring for her children – to be determined by at least two qualified psychiatrists. Insane and imbecilic women would be considered under this category.

•           Eugenic — If a woman voluntarily requests an abortion, since she feels that she has had enough children, and her socio-economic position is such that the forthcoming child will live in deprivation.

•           Humanitarian — In special situations like rape, incest or other criminal coercion, which results in an unwanted conception on the part of the innocent woman.

The barbaric attitude of today’s abortion laws has lately been attacked by some doctors themselves. Dr. E. C. McCoy, an official of the British Columbia division of the Canadian Medical Association, observed recently: “The law on abortion should be modified to allow legal abortions for broad physical and mental reasons, and not only when the life of the mother is at “stake.” And Dr. William A. Dafoe, a Toronto obstetrician, added more explicitly: “Abortion should be allowed for rape, incest, abnormal inheritanic possibilities, and mental disturbance.”

Lawyers have been complaining about abortion laws for years. Queen’s Counsel Norman Borins, an eminent Toronto lawyer, noted recently that the effect of the law in its present state is not to eliminate abortion, but to compel secrecy and abortions by unqualified professional abortionists.

When a mother of two children was sentenced to eight years for abortion in Toronto last year – she had killed a 30-year-old woman during an operation – the presiding judge bleakly commented: “One could almost justify in some circumstances the performance of these operations by persons competent to perform them, believing their competency could save the victim from any harm. You had no skill, no training, and the inevitable result came about with the death of another woman.”

Surprisingly, social workers – those who often see the tragic results of abortions and failure to obtain them – remain maddeningly silent. Yet they daily come into contact with tragic single and married women, crying for help in obtaining an abortion. “Every day,” an experienced social worker told me, “we see the tragic consequences of women who need abortions, being forced into maternity.”

She told me of a recent phone call from a husband whose family had been known for six years at the agency. He told the social worker: “My wife is three weeks pregnant. Times are pretty hard for us now, and we don’t want this pregnancy. She’s taken quinine, turpentine, without any result. Now she’s told me she’ll commit suicide if she can’t get an abortion. You’ve got to help us.”

The social worker could only grimly reply she was unable to help them. After hanging up the phone, she made this notation on the record of the family: “Expect to admit child to care, find foster home for unwanted child, make hospital arrangements when time comes. Mother is very upset. Help cannot be given for abortion.”

Professionals like these continually tell me: “But we cannot tell anyone about these situations. They are confidential.” Well, I think we ought to let the public know. Let them know what comes of their laws – a trail of dead or distraught women, and unwanted children who often spend their young lives in institutions.

Our churches are little help. The Catholic viewpoint is expressed in a recent editorial in the Roman Catholic Register: “Any abortion operation, bringing about the delivery of a child before it has a reasonable chance of living by itself, is plain unadulterated murder.”

To this is added the voice of Father George, Superior of the Jesuit province of Upper Canada, who wrote not too long ago that abortion is murder of the innocent for which answer must be made to Almighty God. Father George also observes that the Church punishes the crime of abortion by excommunication. Catholic doctors and hospitals are not allowed to perform any type of abortion. The sixth commandment – “Thou shall not kill” – is quoted as basis for this attitude.

Other denominations are more liberal, and accept certain kinds of therapeutic abortions. But what amazes me is that the religions which have the most respect for life in the womb, and are so adamant about abortion, are frequently the ones most vocal in support of war and the death penalty.

The church condemns abortion, but walks behind the person about to be hanged, and holds his hand as the noose is slipped over his head. Theodore Parker said: “The great basis of the Christian faith is compassion; do not dismiss that from your hearts; neither will your Maker.” So this unswerving religious attitude on abortion does not make sense to me.

And still our public would rather bury its head like an ostrich, and refuse to see, hear, and act on this vital issue, despite monthly reports of the work of criminal abortionists.

A few months ago, a woman was charged with manslaughter in Toronto. She attempted to perform an abortion on a woman who had died.

Every month, such a report appears in our press. Who knows how many cases go unreported. Our public is so confused and misinformed on abortions that most still think abortions are almost always performed on single women who want to get rid of their mistake. Yet studies by Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research show that 70 to 85 percent of all abortions are performed on married women.

Most black market abortionists are women with a smattering of nursing or medical knowledge, who operate out of hotel rooms, basements or hideout apartments. Their names and phone numbers are well known to many people of the community, and I know of instances where well-meaning people have referred patients to these operators. Their fee ranges from $200 to $2,000 per abortion, and their skills vary from butchery and quackery to some sort of medical knowledge. A woman in their hands is at the mercy of harmful drugs, permanent injury, and death. An estimated 200 Canadian women die annually at the hands of criminal abortionists.

Dr. Louis J. Harris, Chief of Obstetrics at Toronto’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, stated last year at a conference of coroners: “The commonest cause of maternal deaths in big cities is criminal abortions, and most of the victims are married women.”

These criminal abortionists come from all walks of life. Recently, a Toronto man pleaded guilty to five charges of abortion, and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was a part-time TV actor, and had earned $4,000 performing abortions. He had business cards bearing “Personal Service”, with a telephone number but no name.

Despite our laws, the black market abortionist flourishes in all Canadian cities. Few are ever brought to justice – not real justice. Yearly convictions for abortion in Canada average 70. Sentences are light, and average 18 months. The longest sentence on record appears to be nine years. Three years ago, a Toronto woman who’d earned $37,000 in four years of abortions, was sentenced to just 18 months of imprisonment.

There are doctors in every city who are known to perform abortions, all the while knowing that they are performing a criminal act and can lose their licence to practise medicine. But they take the chance, because the money’s good. Recently, a doctor friend of mine confided: “I could easily earn $100,000 a year, if I would perform abortions.”

Often, respectable doctors will send their patients to these doctors. Another doctor I know once told me the story of a married woman who’d gotten pregnant by another man. “I had too much to drink. I didn’t know what I was doing,” she cried. “It’s the first time something like this has happened to me. I’ve had a happy home for 15 years, and my family’s life will be ruined if I carry this child. I need an abortion.” After much urging, the doctor gave her the address of a doctor known to perform abortions. This was the only human thing he felt he could do.

These abortion doctors are usually treated like outcasts by their medical colleagues. They are not welcome at medical conventions, and most doctors don’t even want to be seen in their presence. But many doctors feel it is more humane, more ethical to send a patient to such a doctor than to have some quack butcher her. At least, these men are doctors who perform abortions as a sideline to a reputable practice. True, their prices may be somewhat higher, but at least the operation is successfully performed under their expert medical supervision.

It’s the butchers who give our public hospitals the aftermath of their illegal abortions. A surgeon on the staff of one of the largest Toronto hospitals told me: “Every day we get three to five cases of women who come in bleeding profusely. We know they’ve had an abortion, but we have to help them. We stop the bleeding, and patch them up. By law, our hospitals are not allowed to perform abortions, but we complete the operation daily, after some abortionist has operated on them.”

This is the irony of the situation in Canada.

Don’t get the impression there are no legal abortions performed in Canada. Our non-Catholic hospitals are allowed by law to perform so-called therapeutic abortions. A therapeutic abortion is performed in a recognized hospital, under regular medical supervision; it may be performed for a physical or mental condition. Medical reasons may include cancer in pregnancy, German measles, tuberculosis and certain heart conditions. But Dr. Alan Guttmacher, eminent gynecologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, points out that psychiatric conditions have become the chief focus of therapeutic abortions.

Hospitals vary in their approach to therapeutic abortion: some make it difficult, and require a board meeting to consider each case; others leave the decision to a panel of three doctors; a minority of hospitals take the word of the attending doctor to go ahead with the abortion. Catholic hospitals allow no abortions under any circumstances. An abortion, performed in a public hospital, can safeguard and guarantee the life of the woman to a high degree. Cost to the patient would range from $50 to $100, and could be covered by one of our health insurance plans.

We pride ourselves in Canada on having a modern, up-to-date country. We insist on the rights of the individual. What rights are we giving the woman who wants, needs, and requests an abortion? The foetus belongs to the woman – what right do we have to impose our judgment on her foetus? Yet after the child’s birth, we turn around and say to the woman: “He’s your responsibility.” We are not consistent in our approach to the responsibilities of parenthood.

More advanced and liberal countries than Canada have faced reality and updated their abortion laws. The Iron Curtain countries allow abortions for varied reasons like advanced age of the woman, too many children, death or disability of the husband, and a difficult situation in an unmarried woman. Iceland has had legal abortion for socio-economic reasons for the past 23 years, fully supported by the medical profession. Their laws resulted in a decline in abortions. In Denmark, a board consisting of a psychiatrist, doctor and social worker processes all applications for abortion.

Norway rules that two doctors have to give consent. Since 1948, Japan has had liberal abortion laws to stop the overpopulation crisis. Neither Shintoism nor Buddhism, the two largest religions in Japan, oppose abortion. In 1957, 1,000,000 abortions were performed legally in Japan, and the population figures have been kept down to the normal increase.

Even Latin American countries, despite strong Roman Catholic influences, have more liberal abortion laws than Canada. And in Britain, the Abortion Law Reform Association, consisting of lawyers, doctors, and scientists, has introduced a bill to the British parliament proposing legal abortion for socio-economic circumstances, pregnancy in a young child or demented woman, and pregnancy after a criminal assault such as rape.

As you can see, Canada is still in the Middle Ages when it comes to abortion laws.

We need two types of changes to unravel our abortion muddle: the first is prevention; the second is a drastic change in our abortion laws.

Prevention would include voluntary sterilization and sex education. For families who have had enough children, there’s an operation called vasectomy, which is performed on the man. This operation is a minor one, and does not affect the man’s sexual system. It only prevents further conception on the part of the wife. A wife also can be sterilized if she so desires. This would reduce the need for abortions for many of our married women. Let me emphasize that this would be a voluntary operation.

The Parents’ Information Bureau of Kitchener, Ont., a private organization which gives advice about birth control, has arranged 1,335 vasectomies in Canada during the past several years. There are only about six doctors in Canada willing to co-operate with the Parents’ Bureau in performing vasectomies. Some doctors will, however, refer men to the Parents’ Information Bureau. Cost of this operation is approximately $50.

One man who’s had the operation told me: “My married life has been happier and more satisfying since I had the vasectomy. My wife and I know we don’t have to fear further pregnancies, since our family of four children is enough. My wife would have gone to pieces, if she’d gotten pregnant again.”

The second method of prevention is sex education. Recently a young 17-year-old girl asked my advice: “I was going steady. I was raised in a home where sex was a dirty word, and we weren’t allowed to ask any questions. One night, my boyfriend said he wanted to teach me all about it. I didn’t know, so I played along. I think I’m pregnant. You know, I never knew how babies were made…”.

I sent her immediately to a doctor. Luckily, she wasn’t pregnant. But my next task was to educate this girl in the facts of life. My doctor friend helped in instructing her about contraception. This girl’s case is multiplied by the hundreds every year. Our social agencies have new cases daily, where teenage unmarried mothers apply for help “because they did not know about sex”. Many abortions would not be needed for unwanted pregnancies, if sex education was available.

In 1959, our illegitimate birth rate in Canada was 20,221 children. Of these, 7,146 were born to mothers under 20. And how many more young unwed mothers sought out the criminal abortionists?

Boards of Education have no qualms in introducing Driver Education and Survival Training into the school courses. Why not Sex Education?

Legislation permitting abortion for the medical, mental health, eugenic and humanitarian reasons I mentioned earlier in this article, would not lead to greater promiscuity, in turn leading to a need to have more abortions performed. On the contrary, where the law is in conflict with what the majority want, the law will be flaunted. Recall the prohibition laws regarding liquor, which eventually had to be repealed. In the long run, laws are easier to change than people.

It is about time that doctors, psychiatrists, the clergy, social workers and lawyers sat down together to work out a sensible approach to abortion, and have Parliament legalize abortion. It’s inhumane to allow Canadian women to risk their lives by seeking illegal abortions.