Unpacking the history of abortion and contraceptives in Canada

Overturning of Roe V. Wade sparks conversation of its relevance in Canada

Image by: Uwineza Mugabe
Roe v. Wade is raising discussions regarding contraceptives and women’s reproductive health.

This article discusses unplanned pregnancy and may be triggering for some readers. The Queen’s Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC) can be reached at 613-533-2959.

When discussion on the potential overturn of the American Roe v. Wade bill entered public discourse earlier this May, a large debate about the ethics of abortion emerged north of the border.

Historically, abortion has been a contentious topic in Canada as well as the United States. Despite Canada’s decriminalization of abortion in 1988 as a result of the R. v. Morgentaler case—in which the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) revised the abortion provision in the Criminal Code, deeming it unconstitutional due to a violation of women’s rights—women’s access to an abortion is not guaranteed.

The court’s ruling for access to abortion places women’s constitutional rights at the forefront of the conversation. The National Abortion Federation Canada explains how the restrictive nature of abortion before 1988 infringed on a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of person,” as written in Sec. 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Then, in the 1989 Tremblay v. Daigle case, the SCC ruled a father had no legal right to interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The ruling was made after Chantal Daigle’s boyfriend obtained a court injunction to prevent her from receiving an abortion.

In 2017, Mifegymiso, an oral pill to terminate pregnancy, became available in Canada. Currently, it is insured under the provincial health insurance plans. Mifegymiso is one of two forms of abortion and is known as a medical abortion. The pill stops a woman’s pregnancy and induces cramps in the uterus so the body can expel the fetus.

The second type of abortion is called a surgical abortion. In Ontario, it can be obtained up to 24 weeks Gestational Age. The appointment is two to three hours long and includes a counselling session, ultrasound, blood test, and STI test after the procedure has been completed.

The historical progression of abortion in Canada, as well as the resurgence on discussion on Roe v. Wade and R. v. Morgentaler, demonstrates how recent the debate on abortion is within Canada as well as the United States. Abortion services rely on the Canada Health Care act to remove any barriers to access.

Barriers to abortion are not exclusive to legal mandates and include issues such as a lack of availability, a lack of financial and logistical resources for transportation to an abortion facility. Political and economic barriers are alleviated under the jurisdiction of Canada health care.

Canada Health Care also seeks to improve the discrimination of minority and marginalized groups within the health care system and provide greater access to Indigenous and racialized people, members of the queer community and youth.

A news release from the Government of Canada reflects the belief “that everyone should have access to safe and consistent reproductive health services, including abortion.”

Alongside the dispute over abortion comes a questioning of what such discussions mean for women’s health, bodies, and sexual relationships.

Specifically, restrictions on women’s access to abortion brings into question students’ use of contraceptives and encourages conversation on women’s reproductive health. Sexual and romantic relationships among university students can be affected by a re-evaluation on the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion.

The 1892 Canadian Criminal Code had a law that made it illegal to sell or advertise birth control in Canada. Eventually, in the 1930s, support for the Canadian birth control movement pushed for the distribution of birth control information with Dorothea Palmer’s trial in 1936.

Palmer was employed by A.R. Kaufman, a Canadian businessman who supported the Canadian Birth control movement. When Palmer was put on trial for violating the Criminal Code for the advertisement of contraceptives, she laid the groundwork for the legalization of contraceptives.

Though she was acquitted, contraceptives were not officially legalized until 1950, when the first birth control pill was available to sell by a doctor for prescribed therapeutic reasons.

On July 1, 1969, contraception was decriminalized in the Criminal Code and gave Canadians the right to prevent pregnancy without the fear of being charged for criminal behaviour.

Kristin Bessai, ArtSci ’23 and a volunteer at the Queen’s Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC), believes there may be a correlation between safer sex and one’s ability to access an abortion.

“I think we’d probably see an increase in contraceptive methods. But I also think that conversely hookup culture would definitely maybe go down because people would be scared,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

Bessai also said abortion will “universally” affect everyone “not only from a health standpoint but also from a position that having a child would affect the child itself.”

In 2019, the SHRC ran a survey on student health behaviours, attitudes, and perceptions on health issues. 2,349 Queen’s student participated in the survey, with a median age of 20. According to the survey, 82.2 per cent of sexually active students used a method to prevent pregnancy the last time they had sex.

Of these students, 62.4 per cent used birth control pills with male condoms, 71 per cent used birth control pills with withdrawal, and 16.7 per cent reported use of emergency contraception.

According to the survey, the number of students who used birth control pills has decreased since 2013. 70.3 per cent of people used birth control pills in 2013 and 63.9 per cent used them in 2019. There was also an increase in withdrawal, from 25.2 per cent in 2013 to 31.8 per cent in 2019.

Bessai explained there were two aspects to pregnancy prevention when asked if contraceptives were an effective method of prevention.

“There is the physical aspect to contraceptive use, like the patch ring, IUD, or the pill and the other half of it all, which is arguably our most important is the education.”

She described how many university students are sexually active, yet don’t factor in the importance of health and wellness.

“Let’s be honest, university people are going to have sex, especially people who haven’t been having access to that education and making choices aware to the facts that health and wellness are important to sexual health.”

Harm reduction became a central concern for Bessai because she believes people need to be made aware of the impact their sexual experience may have on their physical and mental health.

“If they are only taught abstinence as a form of contraception, [students] don’t understand the full implications [of having sex] to themselves and their bodies.”

This emphasis on education is also seen in health reports by Statistics Canada, which explain, “substantial numbers of youth in Canada are sexually active and not taking appropriate actions to reduce outcomes that may negatively impact their sexual and reproductive health.”

Further education on sexual health and contraceptive use is provided by the SHRC.

The SHRC offers information on their website about where people can go for STI testing, birth control, counselling services, and additional services pertaining to health and wellness.

The website also includes information on where students can go to learn about their options should they become pregnant. The SHRC gives students multiple options for how they might want to proceed in this scenario, providing information on the Children’s Aid Society, Kingston General Hospital (Women’s Clinic), and Morgentaler Clinics in Toronto and Ottawa.

Contraceptive use is not only used as a means to prevent pregnancy. It is also seen as a protective measure against STIs and the regulation of sexual health.

Izabelle O’Connor, Artsci ’23, has used contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and to avoid the side effects of menstruation.

“I got the IUD to deal with the sort of side effects of menstruation, like cramps and things like that. And it’s made those a lot better,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

O’Connor’s sexual health is also a priority for her outside her romantic relationships. Though contraceptive use is important as a pregnancy prevention, it is also a form protection for women’s health.

When The Journal asked if O’Connor felt the use of contraceptives impacted her romantic relationships, she responded with, “yeah, I don’t think it does.”

But, when The Journal asked what she would do if there were restricted access to abortions, she said, “I don’t think my use would change. But if I didn’t have an IUD, I would get one. It [the IUD] has done better things for my cramps than what being on the pill did.”

“[It was] very much a personal choice and a personal comfort. […] I do not think that a ban on abortion puts women’s health as a central focus. I think it benefits the people who prioritize the potential feus and do not think it prioritizes women.”

O’Connor decided to switch from a birth control pill to an IUD because of side effects she experienced from being the on pill from high school.

“I think definitely [contraceptive use is] health centered, specifically, because a lot them have side effects and things like that,” she said.


Abortion, Birth control, Contraception, Sex

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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