Gestational Limits on Abortion in Canada: Disproving Anti-Choice Rhetoric

One of my least favourite anti-choice tactics is the claim that a newly born baby is only one day safe from being murdered by abortion. You see this idea pop up on bill boards and pamphlets all the time, particularly in Canada as we have no federal law regulating abortion. However, all this claim really shows is how misinformed and cruel the anti-choice side can be.

In Canada, abortion was decriminalised in 1988. This does not mean that we immediately started giving out free abortion coupons on street corners. This also does not mean that Canada started aborting late-term pregnancies all willy-nilly, just for funsies. Decriminalisation in this case simply refers to the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal law that declared abortion to be a crime unless obtained under very specific and discriminatory circumstances.

After the Supreme Court of Canada issued the Morgentaler decision of 1988, abortion became a regular medical procedure that technically should be accessible to all Canadian citizens (it’s not). However, just because there is no federal criminal law prohibiting the activity (Parliament never issued any further legislation in this area despite the having the power to do so), does not mean that abortion is available on-demand throughout an entire pregnancy. Medical institutions and the associations governing medical practitioners have both imposed gestational restrictions on when they allow abortion to be performed.

According to the Canadian Medical Association guidelines on abortion, abortion can be performed on demand in Canada up until 22 weeks (but finding a medical institution that will do this is another issue altogether). It can be performed up until 24 weeks for genetic abnormalities, desperate social circumstances, and the protection of maternal health. After 24 weeks, the genetic abnormality must be lethal.[1] This means that getting an abortion during the third trimester in Canada requires a person to present a very compelling argument to a medical practitioner. In fact, in 2005, only 0.4% of all Canadian abortions were performed after the twenty week mark.

Furthermore, the Canadian Medical Association is not the only agent imposing limitations on abortion services. Hospitals and clinics can also impose gestational limits dependant on their capacity to offer abortion procedures. Many hospitals will offer abortion services only in the first trimester. Much of the reasoning behind these decisions can be explained by the shortage of doctors trained in providing the procedure, but financial and capacity strains have also caused medical institutions to de-prioritize abortion services. In total, only 15.9% of all Canadian hospitals offer any abortion services.[2]

Rather than living in an “abortion paradise”, women in Canada actually have many difficulties accessing abortion services at all, particularly women living in rural areas and Aboriginal women. For example, there is one province that does not offer abortion services (Prince Edward Island) and others that have such restrictive gestational limitations that many women must travel across provincial/territorial/country borders simply to access the service (Nunavut and the Northwest Territories both offer abortion services only during the first trimester). There are only three provinces offering abortions past twenty weeks (British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec), and most Canadians requiring a severely late-term abortion are forced to travel to the United States as there are simply almost no providers that can or will provide abortions during the third trimester in Canada.

I am actually of the opinion that women should not have to prove their need to access an abortion at any time. However, in Canada, this system of limitations is the current reality despite what anti-choicers would like everyone to believe. Abortion is certainly not available on-demand until the day of birth and, as the guidelines show, late-term abortions are performed only for catastrophic situations. The next time an anti-choicer starts lecturing you on the poor little day-old babies, just barely safe from abortion, you can call them on their bull shit.


[1] For more information, read Joyce Arthur, “The Case for Repealing Anti-Abortion Laws” Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (January 2009), online: <http://www.arcc-cdac.ca/press/repeal.pdf&gt;.

[2] See Jessica Shaw, “Reality Check: A Close Look at Accessing Abortion Services in Canadian Hospitals” Canadians for Choice (2006), online: <http://www.canadiansforchoice.ca/report_english.pdf&gt;.

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5 thoughts on “Gestational Limits on Abortion in Canada: Disproving Anti-Choice Rhetoric

  1. I wanted to say a Huge thank you for this post. I am woefully uninformed when it comes to abortion laws and accessibility in Canada – the country I live in.

    • Thanks! I’ve been working on a project for work on abortion rights in Canada and realising that there was so little information out there when compared to the United States! There are some great Canadian pro-choice bloggers, but we need more of those types of voices out there.

  2. Hi Jessica. Great blog! I conducted most of the surveys for the 2003 CARAL report (all PTs outside Ontario and Quebec). That was a tall order. I can’t believe you did them all in just a few months in 2006. Given the current attention on Rona Ambrose’ vote on M-312, it would be good to get your info out there in the media. There’s this common misperception that abortion is “unlimited”.

  3. Sorry, I just realized you are not Jessica Shaw but you quote her research. Great work on reporting on the issue, nonetheless. All the best!

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