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no choice Canadian women’s stories of illegal abortion

July 7, 1999

From 1869–1969, abortion in Canada for any reason was a crime punishable by life imprisonment. From 1892 (when Canada’s first Criminal Code was introduced) to 1969, there was a legal ban on the sale and advertisement of contraceptives and on dissemination of information. The book, No Choice – Canadian Women Tell Their Stories of Illegal Abortion explores what it was like to be a woman of reproductive age during the era when abortion (and contraception) was a crime.

Here are the stories of Katherine, Amanda and Mary. The photographs below are published in No Choice – they are originally from The Toronto Police Service Museum Archives. The first is an early 1960s illustration from the files of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Abortion Squad showing “a number of items which have been used by lay abortionists,” including “knitting needles, coat hangers, home-made sounds, spoons, rubber catheters, plastic tubes, hairdressing combs and slippery elm.” The second is a photograph of the Toronto Abortion Squad investigating the death of a woman from an illegal abortion. The third is an “operating room” for performing illegal abortions discovered by the Abortion Squad of the Metropolitan Police Morality Department in the early 1960s.

[PLEASE NOTE: section15.ca is in the process of requesting permission to use these images, which were originally published on CoolWomen.]

Katherine
rural Alberta, 1909, and location unknown, 1930s

I have two stories to tell about illegal self-induced abortions, but must insist on anonymity for myself and the two women concerned. The first is about my mother, who went to Alberta in 1909 with my father and my two older brothers, aged two and four. She did not want to go, but my father had homestead fever and insisted. Her chief reason for objecting was that she had had a rough time when my second brother was born and was afraid to have another child in an isolated place, one hundred miles from a doctor.

Sure enough, she became pregnant. She consulted her sister-in-law on the next farm, but either got no useful information or was afraid to try what she was told by her. Anyway, she told me that, in desperation, she went out to the fields and guided the plow, pulled by tow oxen, until she had so strained herself that she miscarried or aborted herself. She described her desperation, and said that she was not afraid to die, but she could not bear the thought of not living to see her children grow up. For two years after, she menstruated every two weeks, and worried that she might not have another child.

They went back to Toronto, broke, after being hailed out three years in a row, and I was born about fourteen months later. She was overjoyed. No one could have loved children more than she did, but her abortion was out of sheer necessity. Nowadays, she would not have been so isolated, but if abortions were to become illegal again, her desperation could lead to a similar action.

The second story is about a woman who I did not know personally but have much in common with. She was my ex-husband’s first wife – I was his second. They were married for about three years, and had a little girl. About eighteen months later this woman found herself pregnant again. The marriage was most unhappy, and she terminated the pregnancy by using some kind of chemical douche. She developed peritonitis and died in hospital.

During her delirium, she talked about how unhappy she was, and my ex-husband was charged in court with aiding her in procuring an abortion. His defence was that she was pregnant by someone else, and of course she was not there to defend herself. Having lived with him for seventeen years, more or less, I have every sympathy with her. He had been diagnosed as manic depressive and psychopathic, and was sheer hell to live with. This all happened during the 1930s, when divorce was difficult to get and married women couldn’t find jobs, so she was desperate too.

Anyway, it was their experiences and a book titled Who Shall Live? by the American Friends Service Committee in 1970, I believe, which convinced me to take a pro-choice stand. I have three sons, all wanted and planned by me, but not by my husband, and I have not had or considered an abortion – besides, I was well beyond childbearing when it became an issue. I support choice because of these two women, in hope that no one else has to go through what they experienced.

So, no names, please.

Amanda
Vancouver, 1937

I lost my mother because of the abortion laws.

My mother got pregnant during the Depression at the age of 41 or 42. We had just lost our farm in Abbotsford, B.C., and were forced to move in with my maternal grandmother in downtown Vancouver. You can imagine what this did to my dad, a proud Scot. No job, lost his farm and living off his mother-in-law. I believe my mom’s age was also a factor in her being so desperate to end her pregnancy.

Out of her desperation she went to a back-alley abortionist in Vancouver, who botched the job and left her with infections and constant pain. All of a sudden she could do nothing. Her health went down and down. She was also Catholic and felt terrible guilt along with the pain. Dad had to cook and look after my sister and me – we were ages six and eight.

She was like this for about three months when one day the bathroom door was broken down and she was found on the floor, having consumed cockroach powder. I remember the ambulance coming and all commotion.

St. Paul’s Hospital turned the ambulance away, as it was a suicide attempt. She was then taken to a private hospital where she died an agonizing death a week or ten days later, leaving two little girls motherless.

Years later my grandmother, who then raised my sister and me, told us that Mom had been butchered during the abortion and nothing could be done to help the downward spiral of her health.

I do not want this story to be interpreted that out of having an abortion she committed suicide. She was so desperate to end the pregnancy, but the condition she was left in brought on the depression leading to the suicide. My grandmother and dad explained this to us girls.

I am now 63 years old. We must never go back to those days.

Mary
Ottawa, 1963

I became pregnant in 1963. I didn’t know it at first because I was so sick for several weeks that I could hardly get up. I had foolishly believed that my boyfriend had been careful – he was using the “withdrawal” method. I was very naive.

The relationship had already ended. Abortion was, of course, illegal and everyone else I knew who had gotten pregnant had mysteriously left school, left the city or gotten married because of it. When I found out that I was pregnant I knew there was no question of going through with it. I had earlier left school and knew by then I was going to go back to university and become a teacher.

My doctor was a young woman beginning her practice. She was very sympathetic, but said, “I would love to help you but I could lose my career if anyone found out.” So I spent the next month asking everyone I knew for the name of a doctor who might help me. No one knew anyone. Then I asked all my acquaintances, and then acquaintances of acquaintances, until I felt everyone in the world knew. From my search I got the names of about fifteen doctors in the Toronto area who had either performed abortions or had made referrals. I made appointments with all of them.

Most of them treated me very badly. Not one was sympathetic. I guess they were terrified that I was a police plant, because a doctor in Toronto had recently been jailed for performing an abortion. They all asked me to leave their offices. I tried to be very reasonable, but with some I broke down and pleaded for help.

One doctor said, “This is not a medical problem. You go and change the law and then come back and see me.” Another doctor threw something at me as I was leaving his office. It hit me in the head and I picked it up. It was a birth control pamphlet.

By this time I was about 16 weeks pregnant. I got a call from an acquaintance who said I could see a woman on Wellesley Street who would do it. I made an appointment for the next night. Just before I left my house, I got a call from this contact person who said he had just heard from the abortionist wondering where I was. He told me “She sounded very drunk. Don’t go.”

By then I was in despair. My parents had found out why I was so sick and they were wonderful about it. My dad said he had just read that abortion was legal in Sweden and that somehow they would arrange to send me there. But the next day a cousin of a friend called to tell me of a man in Ottawa who would give me an abortion for $400. I was told to come alone, bring cash and I would be met at the airport.

My parents gave me the money and a man named Gordon met me there. He took me to a large house in an expensive area. Another man who was called “the doctor” took the cash and then took me into a bedroom. I didn’t believe he was a doctor. Gordon came into the bedroom, too, and the doctor told me to undress and covered me with a sheet. I had no idea what he was going to do. He said he was going to insert something that would cause an abortion, and not to worry because he had done thousands. He said that the day before he had performed one a 15-year-old girl who was five months pregnant, with no problems.

He put the rubber tube inside me and held it there for what seemed like a long time. I can’t remember how long. Then he said, “Okay, that’s all, you’ll be fine now.” I panicked. Nothing had happened and I believed he had cheated me.

He told me to go to a hotel and a few hours later I would go into labour, and after a few hours I would “miscarry.” He said, “Don’t you dare tell anyone. If anything goes wrong, don’t call a doctor or the police because you’ve just broken the law and you can go to jail.” He gave me the number to reach him at “only in am emergency.”

Gordon was then going to drive me to the Beacon Arms Hotel. On the way, he said he had to stop at his place to get something and told me to come in. Then he poured a drink for me and I said no, that I just wanted to go to the hotel. He said, “Look, the best thing for you to do now is to have a drink and a good f--- and it will all happen faster.” I ran out of his house, got a taxi and went to the hotel.

By then I was too frightened to stay alone. I called my girlfriend Janet at work in Toronto and she was great. She left work and my father drove her to the airport and bought her a ticket to Ottawa. She joined me within a few hours. By then it was about 9 p.m. and nothing had happened since I had seen the “doctor” at ten that morning.

But soon I started having very bad cramps. By midnight, the cramps had become almost unbearable and I was biting a pillow to keep from screaming. I had noting to take for the pain and had not idea if this pain was normal. The cramps went on for about eight hours before the bleeding started. I bled heavily and the pain did not stop. My friend wanted me to go to the hospital, but we were both too frightened to do that. I alternated between lying down and sitting on the toilet, muffling my face in a pillow. I was afraid I was going to hemorrhage and die.

Then at about eight o’clock in the morning I called the “doctor” to ask him what to do. He asked me if I had “miscarried” and I said I didn’t know, that I was just bleeding very heavily. He said something like, “You stupid bitch, when the bleeding stops, it will be over. Don’t you dare call anyone.” And then he hung up.

By about ten o’clock the pain was lessening and the bleeding was less. By then I had used all the hotel towels and several boxes of pads. (Gordon had told me to buy several boxes of menstrual pads and then Janet bought several more early that morning.) We hid the towels in a garbage can when we checked out.

We flew home later that afternoon and my own doctor came to visit me that evening and gave me antibiotics. She checked me a few days later and said that I was not pregnant and I was not physically damaged. I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

By 1971, I had been married for several years and my husband and I very much wanted to have a child. Our son was born that year, conceived in love and very much wanted. My pregnancy was fascinating for me, pleasurable and healthy. I still feel like the luckiest person in the world.

I knew by the how truly lucky I had been. I could have died. Many women did then. The woman I almost saw on Wellesley Street was involved in a death from abortion. I saw it in the paper not long after I returned from Ottawa.

more to consider

The intensely personal stories of Katherine, Amanda and Mary touch all of us in some way or another. These women were in different times, in different circumstances, compared to each other. They had some common needs, just like girls and women of today and tomorrow, of Canada and in every country of the world. They needed access to advice, discussion and services that were informed, respectful, supportive, affordable and private.

The United Nations has declared family planning to be a basic human right but, like so many other rights, that declaration is hollow without the services which make it a reality for individual girls and women, whatever their circumstances, wherever they live.

Well, here’s another example of my theory that the only way things for women change is when women stand up, speak out and use their numbers in society. Canada’s laws on contraception and abortion were bad for decades. It took brave individual actions and big public pressure to change them. What we have can never be taken for granted.

Every case which goes to the Supreme Court of Canada involving reproductive freedom, particularly but not limited to abortion, is a battle between those who would limit reproductive freedom, and those who would uphold it. Girls and women who think that things are done once and for all don’t get it or don’t want to get it . These rights were not given freely, they were fought for with brains and heart and sometimes, like the case of abortion, with blood. They can disappear in inches, or in feet, but there are always forces trying to push them back. Freedom is another word for power and there are many in this world who do not want to share power with women or to lose power to women.

resources for this story

Childbirth by Choice Trust is a registered charity located in Toronto, Canada. It was established in 1982, with an educational mandate to promote knowledge and understanding of abortion, contraception, unintended pregnancy and childbearing. Over the years, the Trust had heard from women who had a story to tell from the times when abortion, and the sale or advertisement of contraceptives, were illegal. The Trust decided to formally collect these stories.

The introduction to the book that resulted says:

By sharing their long-guarded secrets, these women teach us a great deal. Their personal revelations illuminate an otherwise dark and hidden past – the frightening underground world of criminal abortion. This is a world that most people don’t even know existed in Canada. It is a world that some people deny ever existed ...

People need to hear these personal experiences, these secrets. There is a very real possibility that this history could be lost with the death of these Canadians, and so the experiences of these women need to be chronicled before their voices are lost to time.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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