Outside Henry Morgentaler's clinic and across the country, first reactions to the Supreme Court of Canada's 1988 ruling on abortion.
As anticipation mounted for the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the country’s abortion laws on January 28, 1988, residents and business owners near Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic at 85 Harbord Street hoped the ruling would bring quiet to their neighbourhood. Since Morgentaler, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 90, opened his clinic in June 1983, they had witnessed an endless stream of occasionally violent protests. “We think the street has gone through a lot, and showed a lot of patience as it has dealt with all this for the past years,” observed Harbord Street Association president Neil Wright.
The first protestors showed up outside the clinic around 7:30 that winter morning. Police erected rows of barricades to allow pedestrians to move around the growing crowd of pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The pro side soon had reason to celebrate: in a five-to-two vote, the Supreme Court struck down Section 251 of the Criminal Code, which forced women seeking legal pregnancy terminations to submit to the approval of a hospital abortion committee.
Morgentaler, who had crusaded for women’s choice in Canada for two decades, and whose clinic was dragged through the legal system following a Metro Toronto Police raid within a month of its opening, was relieved. “Bravo for the Supreme Court of Canada,” he told the crowd waiting outside an Ottawa courtroom. “Bravo for the women of Canada. Justice for the women of Canada has finally arrived.”
Around 7 p.m. that evening, Morgentaler greeted supporters on Harbord Street. By that point, the pro-choice presence strongly outnumbered the opponents still outside the clinic. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he declared. “I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”
All three of Toronto’s major dailies supported the court’s decision. The Globe and Mail felt the pressure was now on Parliament to stop “hiding behind a bad law” and create legislation that trusted doctors and pregnant women “to do the right thing.” The Star called the ruling “forceful” and “reasoned” in recognizing that the Charter of Rights didn’t permit the state to “unreasonably interfere with the personal reproductive choices of women.” The support wasn’t unanimous—a few columnists raised objections—but even among the Sun‘s conservative ranks the consensus was that the court had decided well. The Sun wrote that the ruling was “logical, inevitable, and necessary,” and reminded readers that both the Canadian Medical Association and Ontario Medical Association had passed resolutions six years earlier that closely matched the court’s decision.
Globe and Mail columnist Michele Landsberg found the decision dizzying, in a good way:
At a stroke, the Supreme Court of Canada has wiped out one of our country’s meanest injustices. The abortion law, a shabby and cringing deal made among men who rule, and made at the expense of women, has been named for what it is: painful, arbitrary, and unfair. Those who have not been personally touched by the women’s movement may find it hard to credit the depth of emotion we feel today. It’s important to understand that the abortion fight has not been about abortion, but something which runs far deeper: the right of women to be autonomous.
Back on Harbord Street, the decision didn’t quiet the battle. As governments tried to figure out new abortion legislation, skirmishes at the clinic continued, culminating in a firebombing in 1992. The clinic eventually moved to its current location in North Toronto.
Additional material from the January 29, 1988 and January 30, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, the January 28, 1988 and January 29, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 29, 1988 and January 31, 1988 editions of the Toronto Sun.