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Morality and law in Canadian politics: the abortion controversy 1960-1965: Part I.


This issue recalls the legalization of abortion in Canada 40 years ago, May 14, 1969. The United States imposed abortion on the nation by Supreme Court order four years later in 1973 (Roe vs Wade). But the decision in Canada was made in a democratic vote by Parliament dominated by the Liberals under the newly elected (1968) Canadian idol, Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

In 1974, the now editor of Catholic Insight, published the story of how this abandonment of God's commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" came about. Morality and Law in Canadian Politics: The abortion controversy (Montreal, Palm Publishers, pp. 182; out of print).

To recreate the flavour of those years we reprint Chapter Two, covering the period 1960-1965. We bypass, therefore, Chapter One (Origins and Background). Then we jump to Part One of Chapter 8 ("The Opposition confused"), bypassing Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 dealing with pro-abortion agitation and hearings and debates in Parliament. Alas, there is no space for the final Chapter 10, wherein the author analyzes the moral, philosophical and legal consequences of legalizing what the Vatican Council had designated as a "heinous crime."

In view of the developments in Britain and the United States, it would have been surprising if Canadian history had taken a different road. Influenced by one country in matters of legal theory and legal precedents, and subjected by another country's popular mass media to the largest trend in social behaviour, public opinion in Canada, especially in English Canada, was simply swept along. Nevertheless, the Canadian development is not without distinctive characteristics, as is its final product, the new abortion law itself.

The Press in Canada

Abortions were first openly advocated in Canada in the late fifties. In August 1959 Chatelaine, the Canadian women's magazine, published what was probably the first article in a popular Canadian periodical to call for legalized abortions. (1) Though the article's headline ended in a question mark the author left no doubt that Canada's abortion law should be amended. She called the law "the world's harshest," and claimed that it forced "desperate women to seek help from a vicious back-room racket that often deals in death." As support for future change she pointed to the discussions in Britain and the proposal of the American Law Institute. While events had not yet advanced that quickly in Canada, she could point to a recent symposium on the meaning of 'therapeutic abortion' by the University of Toronto Medical Journal in which several doctors had expressed their preference for a different law.

In favouring a revision of the Criminal Code clause on abortion, Chatelaine was to remain alone among popular magazines for half a dozen years. Canada's national magazine, Maclean's, published by the same Toronto company as Chatelaine, did not broach the subject until 1967, although like practically every other public organ in the country, MacLean's had earlier attacked the birth control clause of the Criminal Code. (2) However, Chatelaine did receive support from two other important publications, the United Church Observer and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

In its 19th General Council of 1960 the United Church had already approved the legality of therapeutic abortions for physical or mental reasons. At that time this Church still disapproved of abortion either as a means of family planning or as relief to the unmarried mother. (3) But from then on the thinking of many ministers and official bodies in this Canadian Church was to go through a rapid evolution. (4)

A United Church minister of Vancouver, the Reverend Ray Goodall, published an article in favour of permitting abortion in the March 1963 Chatelaine. He charged that the Canadian abortion law was not only wrong but cruel and "grossly immoral." "There is no human life in an embryo; it is simply living tissue," he stated, and "human life begins with birth and therefore abortion can never be the destruction of human life." (5) The same author had earlier made a strong plea for world-wide scientific birth control in a 1961 issue of the United Church Observer, claiming, among other things, that "abstinence and continence are fine for saints and celibates; the majority of men and women are neither." (6)

In a May 1963 issue of the Observer, Goodall repeated his Chatelaine plea in a somewhat more subdued tone. (7) It was the counterpart to a lead article by the Rev. Gerald Paul who in the March issue of the same magazine argued that abortion was wrong. (8) That article in turn, was a reply to an earlier Globe and Mail editorial calling for a change in the law. Four years later the same Rev. Paul published in Chatelaine a laudation on the exciting and liberating new morality ("New Moralists insist that charity ... not chastity, is the chief virtue." The New Morality insists that persons are more important than principles. The New Morality is not anti-Christ; rather, it is the church catching up to Christianity." (9)

As one illustration among many of how quickly a man changes his mind, the minister, campus chaplain by then, mentioned that once he, too, had taken a strong stand against abortion (10).


While Chatelaine espoused legalized abortion openly among its women readers, and the Observer raised both pros and cons in a more balanced context among members of the United Church, the Toronto Globe and Mail had become the most formidable protagonist of the legalization of abortion among the general public. It supported the movement from the beginning and, indeed, has been primarily responsible for systematically drawing the attention of the wider public to the issue.

Among the first reports on opinions in Canada, a Canadian Press story published in the Globe and Mail at the end of August 1961 set off a chain reaction of lasting consequence. A top official of the British Columbia division of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. E.C. McCoy, had called for modification of the law to allow legal abortions for broad physical or mental reasons. The report stated that members of Parliament for the Vancouver area, NDPers as well as Conservatives, favoured a thorough investigation of the matter by the federal government. Another doctor, P.L. McGeer, professor at the University of British Columbia, was also quoted as forecasting that abortion would eventually become a scientific question rather than the moral one it was now. Furthermore, the report gave the opinion of Professor Michael Wheeler at the UBC School of Social Work that induced abortion was "no more suitable a subject for the Criminal Code than suicide, contraception or voluntary sterilization." "But", said the professor "the chances of getting agreement on this in Canada are about as good as for those for the re-unification of Germany." (11)

The very next day the Globe made a first attempt to prove Mr. Wheeler's forecast wrong. In an editorial entitled "The Abortion Issue", the Globe recapitulated the information of the previous day, adding that in the opinion of Professor Douglas Cannell, head of the obstetrics department at the University of Toronto, "the general feeling was that the laws do need revision." Referring to illegal abortions and to the fact that many women were obviously following a moral code of their own, the editorial somewhat cautiously queried whether "such women should be permitted to make their own moral decision." This is a question, it said, which is beginning to be asked seriously not only in Canada, but in the United States, Britain, and a number of European countries. The churches have a right to present their view of the moral issue to their adherents but is this perhaps where their right should stop and that of the individual begin? A law which is rejected by the public is seldom a sound law ... (12)

Having drawn attention to the issue of abortion for the first time, the paper then invited seven representatives of the professions and the churches to express their views in a series of articles. In October 1961, under the title "Murder or Mercy", the Globe presented the views of Norman Borins, Q.C.; the Rt. Rev. F.H. Wilkinson, Anglican Bishop of Toronto; Fr. Gordon George, Superior of the Jesuit province of Upper Canada; Dr. B. Schlesinger, lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of Toronto; Dr. Abraham Feinberg, rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto; Dr. L. Harkins, obstetrician-gynecologist for the Toronto Academy of Medicine; and G.P. Gilmour, former president of McMaster University. (13)

Mr. Borins favoured an extension of the law permitting abortion, first to save the life of the mother, secondly, to prevent serious physical or mental injuries, and finally, in the case of sexual assault. "The effect of the law in its present state," he said, "is not to eliminate abortion but to compel secrecy and abortions by unqualified abortionists." The Anglican bishop found it difficult to regard an unborn life and a mature personality as of equal merit. He supported Dr. Fletcher's opinion expressed in the book, Morals in Medicine, that "to refuse to interrupt or prevent a pregnancy from rape would be an obvious injustice." Father Gordon George rejected abortions absolutely on the grounds that an evil means may never be used, not even to procure some presumed good.

Dr. Schlesinger attempted to show that reasonable people had accepted abortion throughout history and that the opposition to it was only the result of the Church's attempt to make the sexual act as difficult as possible. Quoting from Rattray Taylor's book, Sex in History, he traced the whole opposition to abortion to a mistranslation of Exodus 21, 22 by the church father Tertullian. (14) Professor Schlesinger recommended amending the law to allow abortions for medical, eugenic and humanitarian reasons as well as for mental health. Rabbi Feinberg accepted much the same reasons but with much graver caution and concern for moral values. He reiterated the principle that one life may not be sacrificed to save the life of someone else, but explained that the Talmudic approval of abortion to rescue the mother did not contradict this principle because the embryo was not considered to be really alive and possessed of a soul until extrusion and the completion of the birth-process.

Dr. Harkins explained that some therapeutic abortions were actually being carried out in hospitals for both medical and mental reasons. He welcomed clarification of the law in that respect and forecast that most doctors would be reluctant to request widening of grounds for abortion. Finally, Dr. Gilmour rejected the "No, Even though ...' attitude of "certain authoritarian" churches in favour of the "Yes, but ..." answer. He approved abortion whenever beneficial, while expressing hesitation and reserve because of the complexity of the problem. Thus, of the seven participants only the representative of the Catholic Church opposed abortion outright.

Except for a half dozen letters to the editors immediately following the series 'Murder of Mercy', the Globe did not bring up abortion again until 1963. The Toronto paper, and presumably most Canadian papers, did give extensive coverage to the thalidomide tragedy and to such events as the Van de Put trial in Belgium in November 1962 and the earlier case of Mrs. Finkbine of Arizona. 15 While the thalidomide crisis was short-lived it was, nevertheless, of great and lasting importance. First, it suddenly revealed that many people were quite prepared to allow and accept abortion. Secondly, it became clear that they were prepared to do so on the mere possibility of a baby being born seriously deformed.

The next occasion for comment came in December 1962, when Judge Ken Langdon of Oakville publicly recommended that abortion be made legal for unmarried girls under 16 and for victims of rape and, also, that voluntary sterilization be made available for parents of large families. On January 2, 1963, the Globe congratulated the judge for his forthrightness. Without direct mention but with clear reference to the August 1961 news report and to its own series of articles in October of that year, the editorial continued:

Pressure for reform of the laws governing abortion has been growing in recent years at many levels of Canadian society. Highly placed members of the legal, medical and university professions have urged the extension of legal abortion. The National Council of Women presented a brief to the Royal Commission on Health Services which disclosed that illegal abortion is the commonest cause of maternal mortality in Canada. Leading clergymen of major Protestant communions and of the Jewish faith have endorsed extension of legal abortion. Members of Parliament representing all four political parties have also gone on record as favouring extension.

The Globe further declared that a law which no longer conformed to the practices of society could bring all law into contempt and that Canada's law had attained this status "because it was fashioned to meet a particular moral code which is no longer embraced by the majority of Canadians." It concluded by recommending that abortion be legalized as proposed by Mr. Borins and Judge Langdon. (16)


(1.) Joan Finnigan, "Should Canada change its Abortion Law?", Chatelaine, August 1959, pp. 17, 103ff.

(2.) There was two descriptive articles in the French language edition of Maclean's before this date: "Le Drame de l'avortement," March 1963 and Constantineau, G., "Une seance chez l'avorteur numero 1 de Montreal", November 1966. The birth control clause was attacked in "Hypocrisy in the Criminal Code: 'preventing conception' is an offense," Editorial, Maclean's, March 21, 1964, p. 4.

(3.) "Christian conscience cannot approve abortion, either as a means of limiting or spacing one's family, or as relief to the unmarried mother, because it involves the destruction of human life. However, if in the judgment of reputable medical authorities the continuation of pregnancy seriously endangers the physical or mental health of the mother, therapeutic abortion may be necessary."

(4.) By 1971 the Council had come to accept abortion as a private matter between a woman and her doctor, morally justifiable not only in medical but also in certain social and economic circumstances, and to be freely available on request.

(5.) Rev. Ray Goodall, "Is Abortion ever right?" Chatelaine, March 1963, pp. 40 & 48. Chatelaine did not mention abortion again until 1966: Earl Damude, "The Medical Discovery that could legalize Abortion", Sept. 1966, pp. 35ff. Also see editorial August 1967. Chatelaine opposed the 1969 legislation and has favoured its repeal and its exchange for abortion on demand since.

(6.) R.M. Goodall, "Our crowded world needs Scientific Birth Control", U.C. Observer, Feb. 15, 1961.

(7.) Ray Goodall, "A Case for Induced Abortion," May, 1963, U.C. Observer, pp. 15-16.

(8.) "Abortion is Wrong," United Church Observer, March 15, 1963, pp. 16-17.

(9.) Rev. Gerald W. Paul, "The New Morality," Chatelaine, June 1967, pp. 29, 95-96.

(10.) Op. cit., p. 96. As another illustration he hinted at his changed feelings about euthanasia.

(11.) "Relaxation of Federal Abortion Law is asked by B.C. Doctor", Globe and Mail, August 31, 1961, p. 1.

(12.) Globe and Mail, Sept. 1, 1961, p. 6.

(13.) Globe and Mail, Oct. 2-10, p.7

(14.) Rev. Ray Goodall repeated the same story in his Observer article of May 1963 (see above). In reality, approval of abortion has been the exception and opposition to it has been constant throughout history with the earliest references going back to the Sumerian Empire and the Code of Hammurabi, 2000 and 1800 B.C. respectively. Christianity also opposed abortion from its beginning. For a detailed account, see P.V. Harrington, "Abortion from its beginning". For detailed account, see P.V. Harrington, "Abortion--Part VIII', Linacre Quarterly, Feb. 1968, pp.43-60, summarizing the doctoral dissertation, The Crime of Abortion in Canon Law, by R.J. Huser, 1942, Cath. Univ. of America. See Appendix nine.

(15.) For the Van de Put trial, see Chapter one. The Finkbine case occurred in August, 1962. Mrs. Finkbine, a Phoenix housewife and local television performer, believed her baby might be deformed. Upon being denied an abortion in Arizona, the then 30-year-old mother of four flew to Sweden for an abortion. The foetus was reported deformed. Her case was mentioned again, for instance, by Joan Hollobon in an April 1967 Globe and Mail article reporting on a few abortions being done in Canadian hospitals for the same reasons. Globe and Mail, April 11, 1967, p. 1.

(16.) "Two Problems to be Faced," Editorial, Globe and Mail, Jan. 2, 1963.


The previous text illustrates bow a handful of essentially agnostic media people and academics were able to change the climate of opinion. The method employed was that of portraying the Catholic Church as a reactionary force which stood in the way of progress for a now affluent, consumerist and increasingly hedonistic society. The atheist Toronto Globe and Mail spared no effort in twisting the truth. What it did in the late sixties it is still doing today: removing the Christian principles underlying Canadian law until none are left, then preparing to suppress the Church itself.
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Author:de Valk, Alphonse
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2009
Previous Article:Atheism: a threat to civilization.
Next Article:Morality and law in Canadian politics: opponents of abortion confused: Part II.

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