Winnipeg, a battleground city in Canada’s fight for abortion

Those living in rural and remote communities have difficulties accessing abortions. A pill was supposed to make it easier.

Hello friend

The overturning of Wade vs. Roe in the U.S. last week got me reading about the history of abortion on the Prairies.

I hadn’t realized Winnipeg was one of the key battleground cities where the fight to improve women’s access to abortion was fought in the 1980s.

Abortions limited. Previously, in 1969, the federal government passed a law allowing abortions to be performed in a hospital if a committee of doctors decided that continuing the pregnancy might endanger the mother’s life or health.

The abortion crusader. Later, in the 1980s, there was a doctor named Henry Morgentaler, who was so determined to expand abortion rights in Canada, he was prepared to do jail time, and did at the detriment to his own health.

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Abortion made legal. Eventually, in 1988, Morgentaler ended up in the Supreme Court of Canada over the issue. Long story short, this case R. v. Morgentaler, was where abortion was removed from the Criminal Code.

Taking abortion west. But before the Supreme Court got involved, Morgentaler, after running an abortion clinic in Montreal with all kinds of legal headaches, decided to set up shop in Winnipeg.

The goal. Morgentaler’s life mission was to set up abortion clinics across Canada and train other doctors to perform the work. Even at the age of 86, in 2009, he was setting up abortion clinics in the Arctic so women there wouldn’t have to travel as far for the procedure. (Morgentaler died in 2013 at the age of 90).

The Winnipeg Clinic. Back in 1982, Morgentaler decided to open an abortion clinic in Winnipeg. He and two other doctors from out east planned to operate the clinic until they could train staff in Winnipeg to run it. Abortions would be offered to women who were 15 weeks or less into their pregnancy.

The political will? Morgentaler chose to go to Winnipeg because the NDP were in power, and he thought they would be receptive to expanding abortion rights, and since the public had elected the NDP, they would be open to it too. He was wrong.

Political minefield. Within the NDP, there was mixed opinion about abortion. As a party they were weary of taking on such a politically sensitive issue, as they wanted to be voted back in during the next election. The party’s support at the time was largely from rural Manitoba, specifically from Ukrainian Catholics, who opposed abortion.

A bomb scare. In January 1983, Morgentaler and Conservative-turned-NDP MLA Joe Borowski, who opposed abortion, were invited to debate the issue at the University of Manitoba. Before Borowski could speak, the packed room had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat.

The abortion clinic. Morgentaler set up the Winnipeg clinic, and about 400 people in the pro-life movement demonstrated outside the building. When women attended the clinic, protestors would try to talk them out of abortions.

Becoming a hospital? Morgentaler wanted his clinic to become a hospital to help give him legal protection to do abortions under the law, but that was refused.

Police raids. Morgentaler would be raided by police twice in June 1983. Records were seized, staff were questioned, and police even considered taking a garburator where human tissue was allegedly disposed.

Criminal charges. Morgentaler and several clinic staff were charged with conspiracy to procure an abortion, which enabled the government to keep the clinic closed. Approximately 400 pro-choice supporters marched through downtown Winnipeg to protest the police raids.

A political ally? Morgentaler turned to Manitoba’s attorney general Roland Penner who was known as a supporter of women’s right to choose. Morgentaler asked Penner to use his power not to prosecute the clinic. However, Penner said anyone who did anything illegal in Manitoba would face the standard course of action, and that he would not stand in the way of Morgentaler being prosecuted because there was no legal precedence which would allow the Attorney-General to grant immunity.

To make the matter uglier, Morgentaler publicly implied he’d given Penner’s son assistance, providing an abortion for his girlfriend.

Years of legal challenges. The charges against Morgentaler would be dropped, but there would be court action and squabbles with the provincial government and the College of Physicians and Surgeons for years about whether Morgentaler should keep his medical licence in Manitoba, if his clinic should be deemed a hospital, and who should be responsible for all the legal fees.

Finally legal. In 1988, after the Supreme Court decision, Morgentaler’s clinic could perform abortions.

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A violent incident. In November 1997, Jack Fainman, a Winnipeg doctor who performed abortions, was shot through his living room window. Fainman’s case was the third attempted murder of a provider in Canada.

Safety concerns. After the shooting, the number of doctors willing to perform abortions dropped from twenty-two in 1997 to eleven in 2000 in Winnipeg. Following the shooting, hospitals spent $380,000 on security against anti-abortion violence.

A change of ownership. In 2004, ownership of the Morgentaler Clinic was transferred to a group of local pro-choice women. The clinic was renamed Jane Clinic and its status was changed to a community-based board, which the provincial government refused to fund. So, the clinic remained a private clinic until a judge, in 2004, ruled the Manitoba government should also pay for abortions at private clinics.

Further reading. If you’re really interested in this history, you can read more in Manitoba’s Abortion Story: The Fight for Women’s Reproductive Autonomy: 1969-2005.

Over in Saskatchewan, Premier Grant Devine, leader of the Progressive Conservatives, said Morgentaler would not be permitted to open a clinic there as long as he was premier.  

Refusing to pay. In 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada removed abortion from the Criminal Code, Devine said the province wanted to only pay for abortions if they were medically necessary.

A ballot question. During the 1991 Saskatchewan election, there was a plebiscite on the ballot where voters were asked “should the government of Saskatchewan pay for abortion procedures?” Sixty-two per cent of voters said no.

Going against public opinion. While the ballot question was posed by the Devine government, it was the NDP government, under Roy Romanow’s leadership, that won the election. Despite the plebiscite, it was decided that it would be legally impossible for the province to amend the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code and not pay for abortions.

A change of heart. Fast forward to 2018, and more than 80 percent of Saskatchewan residents were found to be pro-choice toward abortion.

The latest abortion discussions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have centred around the drug Mifegymiso and the difficulties those living in rural and remote communities have in accessing abortion.

Few options. In Manitoba, there are only four clinics where women can go for an abortion, and in Saskatchewan there are three.

Different guidelines for different cities. In Regina, anyone can visit the Women’s Centre and make an appointment for a surgery up to 14 weeks gestation, and 18 in some cases. In Saskatoon, though, the Saskatchewan Health Authority says doctors only provide surgeries up to 12 weeks — 14 in rare cases. And there is no central intake, meaning patients must find a doctor who will refer them first.

No good resource. There is no public website in Saskatchewan to tell people where they can get an abortion. People are often left chasing random leads on Google, meaning some patients find themselves at crisis pregnancy centres, which aim to persuade them against terminating a pregnancy.

Long-distance abortions. Women living in northern communities can drive more than 10 hours, sometimes in bad weather, to an urban centre to get an abortion, which is a 10-minute procedure.

Expenses add up. While the abortion itself is free, travel costs, like fuel, accommodations and food are not and the bill for a trip into the city for the procedure can add up to more than $1,500. Plus, one also has to take time off work and, if they already have children, they must find childcare for a few days. If one doesn’t have a car, arranging travel is more difficult now that there is no rural bus service, which used to be offered by Greyhound and the Saskatchewan Transportation Company.

The abortion pill. As for Mifegymiso, it’s a two-part oral medication used to terminate pregnancies within nine weeks of conception.

Free for all. In Saskatchewan, health advocates worked to first get the $360 drug to be partially covered through provincial insurance in 2017. As of 2019, the drug became fully covered. Manitoba also announced it would fully cover the drug in 2019.

Easier access to abortion? Advocates hoped the drug would make medical abortion more feasible for rural patients, as they could get a prescription from their family doctor and take the medication at home, without a hospital procedure.

Moral professional quandaries. There are some doctors and pharmacists who don’t want to provide the drug because of their own personal beliefs on abortion, and they are not letting their patients know it’s an option. Although, they should be referring patients to someone who will provide the drug.

Getting better. In Manitoba’s north, service is improving. There are now at least four people in The Pas and two in Thompson trained to provide medication abortion. Thompson even has an abortion doula who supports people considering ending their pregnancy.

No service. Manitoba’s Southern Health region, which covers a good portion of the province’s southeast, including Portage la Prairie and Steinbach, does not offer abortion services and has no plan to do so anytime soon. The same day Manitoba announced it would be covering the cost of the abortion pill in 2019, there was a pro-life rally in Steinbach where more than 1,100 people attended. MLA Kelvin Goertzen, then Manitoba’s minister of education, was in attendance. However, the Manitoba government maintains they are pro-choice.

Supply chain issues?Approximately six per cent of pharmacies in Saskatchewan stocked Mifegymiso on their shelves in 2021. The majority were in urban communities, as pharmacies don’t always stock a pricier drug like Mifegymiso unless there is a regular demand, due to cost and shelf-life—but a pharmacy can order it or refer people to another pharmacy that has the drug.

Misdirection. In Manitoba, questions about reproductive health care, which includes things like STI testing and Pap smears, must be directed to the minister for the status of women instead of the minister of health. But the minister for the status of women has no control over medical funding, which advocates for women’s health find frustrating.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. Manitoba funds adult epilepsy surgery program
  2. Winnipeg firefighter union warns of staffing shortages: ‘Something’s going to snap’
  3. Peguis First Nation declares state of emergency over flooding for second time this year
  4. Three children treated after pepper spray incident on bus
  5. Man sentenced to three years as part of lengthy human trafficking investigation

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. Moose Jaw Paratransit customer dies while being transferred at hospital
  2. Sask. food banks see spike in clients, drop in donors as inflation hits 40-year high
  3. RCMP search for stolen regalia from Kawacatoose First Nation
  4. Carla Beck wins Sask. NDP leadership, first woman to be elected leader
  5. Sask. population growing slowest among all provinces, StatsCan says

Photo of the week

Smelter smoke at sunrise in Flin Flon Manitoba. GETTY IMAGES.

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

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