Brock Prof. Tami Friedman on what’s happened and what pro-choice Americans and Canadians can do now

On June 24 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, allowing states to re-introduce or introduce new restrictions or bans on abortion. Since this decision, many states have immediately banned the procedure, with more states expected to follow.

Abortion is defined as the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy, usually performed within the first trimester of pregnancy (28 days or 12 weeks). Regardless of race, age, income, parental status, or education level, the decision to undertake such a procedure can be influenced by any number of health-related, financial, and personal reasons. The procedure can also be necessary in situations related to miscarriage and post-miscarriage care.

Dr. Tami J. Friedman (B.A., M.A., Ph.D), Professor of 20th-century U.S. history at Brock University, spoke with the Voice about the unfolding political and socio-economic effects of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

“We have this ruling because of the change in the composition of the Supreme U.S. Court under Trump’s presidency, but in a broader sense we have been moving towards this ruling for 50 years and that’s a part of the story that people are less aware of,” says Friedman.

Educating oneself on the history surrounding the criminalization and legalization of abortion, as well as the timeline of reproductive rights and laws in both the U.S. and Canada, she says, is essential for truly understanding what led the U.S. to this moment. Such information can also help pro-choice Americans and Canadians decide how they can move forward following the ruling.

For hundreds of years, women have faced many obstacles and barriers to attaining safe abortions. According to Friedman, abortion was not considered a crime until the mid 19th century, and even then, the fetus was not considered to be a living being until the woman could feel the fetus move, a process called “the quickening.”

During the mid-to-late 19th century (1850s-‘90s), male doctors were trying to establish their own professions, explains Friedman. In order to do so, they had to drive female midwives and homeopathic practitioners (groups that routinely provided birth control and abortion procedures to women) out of the profession. One of the easiest ways to do so was to make abortion a crime, and to regulate the procedure. Moral reform movements and figures (composed of mainly politicians, doctors and clergy) were concerned about what they believed to be sexual immorality and declining fertility among women in the late 19th century.

By the early 1870s in the U.S., it was illegal to provide or have access to birth control. Abortion was also formally criminalized.

By the 1890s, Canada too became a country where both abortion and birth control were illegal.

Friedman is adamant in stating that abortion is a divisive topic not only because of personal views regarding the procedure, but because of complex (and sometimes emotionally driven) responses by various political groups to the need for women to control their own fertility so they could participate in public life, get an education, get access to employment, live independently, escape from abusive marriages, and make choices about their lives that weren’t simply: “I can be a wife and a mother and that’s all.”

The ability for women to control their right to abortion and bodily autonomy became formally protected in 1973 in the U.S. under Roe v. Wade. With this decision, women in the U.S. had the uncontested right to abortion in the first trimester without any interference from the state, with the option of getting an abortion the second or third trimester if it was deemed necessary for her life or health.

Abortion was not decriminalized in Canada until 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the law as unconstitutional. The procedure is publicly funded in Canada under The Canada Health Act. While abortion in Canada is legal at any stage in the pregnancy, access to services varies by province.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), abortion is “a common health intervention” that is simple and safe when carried out by WHO-recommended methods appropriate to the stage of pregnancy and by healthcare professionals using medications or a surgical procedure.

The woman undergoing the procedure must also have accurate information, safe access to the clinic providing the procedure, and the financial means to afford the post-procedure care and medications.

According to the WHO, there are many serious health risks associated with unsafe abortions. These include:

Incomplete abortion (failure to remove or expel all pregnancy tissue from the uterus)

Hemorrhage (heavy bleeding)

Infection

Uterine perforation (caused when the uterus is pierced by a sharp object)

Damage to the genital tract and internal organs as a consequence of inserting dangerous objects into the woman’s body.

The WHO also states that “inaccessibility of quality abortion care risks violating a range of human rights of women and girls, including the right to life; the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the right to benefit from scientific progress and its realization; the right to decide freely and responsibly on the number, spacing and timing of children; and the right to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.”

There are politicians right here in Niagara who are very vocal about their opposition to abortion

Unsafe abortion is one of the leading preventable cause of maternal deaths. The WHO states that 45 percent of all abortions are unsafe, of which 97 percent take place in developing countries.

“I’m not sure how many Canadians realize how much later abortion became legal in Canada,” says Friedman. In the 15-year interval between the legalization of abortion in U.S., and when it was legalized in Canada, Canadian women actually “had to go to the States to get legal, safe abortions.”

So how should U.S. citizens who are pro-choice can proceed following the overturning of Roe vs. Wade?

According to Friedman, action is already being taken against the new ruling. Legal filings have begun in an attempt to block the bans that are coming forward in a number of states, and some states are passing legislation that will “more or less enshrine the rights to abortion.”

Financially, pro-choice Americans can aid women in need of abortions by participating in fundraising and donating to organizations that help women travel to other states where they can safely access abortion procedures, medications, and other care.

Although the overturning has been devastating to pro-choice advocates all over the world, Friedman is optimistic that “the solid majority of Americans support pro-choice. It’s not a minority position.”

However, optimism can only go so far. Providers of safe abortions have faced violence and opposition in both the U.S. and Canada. Clinics have been firebombed and vandalized, and clinic staff and pro-choice healthcare workers in both countries have experienced protests, harassment, injury, and threats to their personal safety.

Even women who were the victims of botched and unsafe abortions were historically harassed, including on their deathbeds. Susanne Klausen, a Canadian historian, published an article in 1996 in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History titled Doctors and Dying Declaration: The Role of the State in Abortion Regulation in British Columbia, 1917-37.

Klausen detailed how police “regularly sought deathbed statements from victims,” in the hopes of receiving information about the identities of those who provided illegal abortions. Women dying from unsafe abortion practices were confronted and pressured into signing statements. Sometimes lifesaving operations and treatment were even withheld in the hopes of encouraging confessions.

Friedman says that this practice continued in Canada well into the 1950s.

In 2021, the pro-life organization Texas Right to Life offered an online form that allowed community members to anonymously report those who sought out or gave access to abortions. At the time, the page encouraged community members to report anyone who “aids or abets” abortions, a list that included even drivers taking women to a clinic. The form has since been taken down, due to thousands of pro-choice social media users inundating the submission system and sabotaging the organization with false or satirical reports.

“There are a couple of ways the overturning of Roe vs. Wade may affect Canadians,” continues Friedman. “If anti-abortion forces succeed in getting a national ban on abortion, American women who cannot access legal and safe abortions in the U.S. may come to Canada.”

She said that any Canadians who want to help American women may want to get involved in supporting fundraising organizations for women designed to assist them in travelling to other states or countries. These organizations provide funds, information and safe housing. She cited The National Network of Abortion Funds as one of the main groups.

Another possible impact of the overturning is that “the far right in Canada will be bolstered by the success of the far right in the U.S.” says Friedman. “There are politicians right here in Niagara who are very vocal about their opposition to abortion. Conservative MP Sam Oosterhoff has said on record that he hopes to fight to make abortion ‘unthinkable in our lifetime.’”

She also fears that this regression in the U.S. will impact “immigrant women, women of colour and working class women” even more than they already have been. She also points to the many ways women’s access to legal abortions have been restricted over the years, such as long waiting periods, unnecessarily numerous appointments that delay the process, invasive medical procedures, the dissemination of false or inaccurate medical information, and extra regulations of clinics that provide abortions, resulting in infrastructure that goes far beyond what is actually needed for an abortion, “which in its fundamentals is a safe and simple procedure.”

Friedman says that Canadians who are pro-choice should watch carefully to see how conservative politicians and their supporters react to the overturning. She asserts that Canadian citizens must practice “vigilance,” and vote accordingly, especially those who fear that Canada, as it has done historically, may follow the U.S.

Recommended reading from Friedman:

Web links

Guttmacher Institute (reproductive health data): https://www.guttmacher.org/

Medical Students for Choice (includes Canadian chapters): ​https://msfc.org/

National Network of Abortion Funds: https://abortionfunds.org/

Popular media

Clara Bingham, “Code Names and Secret Lives: How a Radical Underground Network Helped Women Get Abortions Before They Were Legal,” Vanity Fair, April 17, 2019: https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/04/jane-network-abortion-feature

Jessica Bruder, “The Future of Abortion in a Post-Roe America: Inside the Clandestine Network Preparing to Circumvent Restriction,” Atlantic, May 2022: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/roe-v-wade-overturn-abortion-rights/629366/

The Janes (documentary film, HBO, 2022): https://www.hbo.com/movies/the-janes

Scholarly works

The following scholars have written extensively on various aspects of abortion and reproductive justice in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere:

Leslie Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997; edition with new preface, 2022)

Christabelle Sethna and Gayle Davis, eds., Abortion Across Borders: Transnational Travel and Access to Abortion Services (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019)

Rickie Solinger, ed., Abortion Wars: A Half-Century of Struggle, 1950-2000 (University of California Press, 1998

Shannon Stettner, ed., Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada (Athabasca University Press, 2016)