What I learned from my mother’s abortions in the 1970s in Canada

The first person I called after leaving the doctor’s office was my mother. She had just confirmed that she was five weeks pregnant, but when I asked the doctor how I could abort, she wanted to qualify my choice.

Was he in a committed relationship? What was our annual income? And why didn’t he want the baby? I answered all of his questions, but he never answered mine.

On the phone, I told Mom to brace herself for some disappointing news. She told me that she was sitting down and I told her that she was pregnant. She breathed a sigh of relief, “I thought you were going to say you weren’t coming home for Christmas.”

I had a flight booked from Toronto to Vancouver the next morning to be with my family for the holidays. At the time, she wasn’t sure how to get an abortion, let alone get an abortion in another province. So, Mom answered where the doctor had left off and offered to call the four clinics that provide abortions in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

The first date was in ten days, and I spent most of that time under the covers in Mom’s guest bedroom. When I wasn’t gagging at a mixing bowl, or in a comatose dream state, I was Googling all things abortion. My only strange longing during pregnancy was for information, a coping mechanism to gain some sense of control while my body was hijacked by hormones.

One day, Mom got into bed, and as we were struggling to decide what to watch on Netflix, she turned to me and said, “You know, you’re going to go into labor.”

I looked at her with wide eyes. No one on the internet had said it like that. But what she said next baffled me: “Well, when I had an abortion…”

Writer and podcast host Rachel Cairns never knew her mother, Donna Cairns had two abortions in the 1970s until she was nauseated waiting for her own.  Here is Rachel's mother when she was pregnant with her in 1988.

Mom and I have a very Gilmore Girls-like dynamic of a single mom and only child. There is literally nothing I can’t tell you. So the fact that I had reached 31 without knowing about her abortions until my current “delicate condition” made me very curious.

She was ten years younger than me when she had her first abortion in 1970 and was not financially prepared to be a mother, especially considering that in those days it was not uncommon for pregnant women to lose their jobs.

The previous year, Pierre Elliott Trudeau had introduced a sweeping reform of the penal code that decriminalized contraception and partially legalized abortion in ambiguous circumstances, if a the pregnancy endangered the “life or health” of a person.

But when Mom asked her doctor for an abortion, he didn’t even want to talk about it with her. Maybe he didn’t want to get involved with the cumbersome legalities of the procedure, or maybe he was morally opposed to it all, but either way, it was clear she would have to handle the situation herself.

A few years earlier, she had accompanied a high school friend to an illegal abortion that cost $200 and resulted in fever and excruciating pain. My mother, like so many women, was placing her future fertility and life in the hands of the pre-med student who agreed to help her. She injected a chemical concoction into her uterus, gave her some antibiotics, and charged her nothing. When she miscarried a few days later, she described it as a “very natural” feeling and that she was comparatively lucky.

For her second abortion in 1978, the doctor was willing to fill out the paperwork to present her case to a committee for approval. Because he had no medical reason to terminate the pregnancy, he essentially had to threaten suicide. Simply not being ready or willing to be a father was not enough. She also helped that she was single. She had a friend who was denied an abortion because her husband did not give her approval.

In 1988, three months before I was born, Canada became the only country without restrictions governing when and under what conditions someone can have an abortion. However, since the United States Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. WadePolitical leaders have finally recognized what Canadian reproductive justice advocates have been calling attention to for decades: access.

Most abortion clinics in Canada are located within 150 kilometers of the US border, which means people in rural and remote communities often have to travel hours to access care, which in turn puts more pressure on providers in urban centers serving populations. far beyond their immediate communities.

Abortion is one of safer and the majority common medical procedures, but Canadians are not equal in their ability to access it. If our governments heed the advice of experts, they will not only tolerate and support abortion, they will protect and expand access to it. This means ensuring that all medical schools have robust mandatory abortion training, enabling nurses and midwives to perform surgical completions, and achieving universal access to contraception, because that too is an imperative component of choice.

Beyond that, we need to break down the silo that stigmatizes abortion by understanding it as not just an isolated incident in people’s lives. It is part of the continuum of choices in a society that increasingly falls short of meeting the basic needs of Canadians. Whether it’s affordable housing, decent jobs, the increasing privatization of health and long-term care, or the planet we’re leaving for future generations to inherit, all of these factors influence if, when, and how people decide to have and grow a family.

Reflecting on the two experiences, Rachel has seen how abortion access in Canada needs to improve.  Here's her mom, Donna.

The year of my mother’s first abortion, 1970, The Royal Commission on the Status of Women — a task force tasked with assessing gender inequality in all aspects of Canadian society — concluded “we are facing a [child care] situation that requires immediate action… We recommend that the federal government take immediate steps to reach an agreement with the provinces that will lead to the adoption of a Child Care Law at the national level.” More than fifty years later, we have finally begun to lay the groundwork for realizing what generations of feminists have been calling for. Progress is slow.

But progress has undoubtedly been made, which is why the far right is campaigning to return to a world that subjugates women to the role of wife and mother. A world that leaves the essential work of sustaining life to predominantly black, brown, and working-class women instead of a collective social responsibility.

What learning about my mother’s abortions in the context of her life experience has taught me is that progress is elusive, fragile, and non-linear. And being the beneficiary of tremendous progress also comes with a responsibility to protect it and continue to move it forward.

Rachel Cairns is a Toronto-based writer, actress, and podcast host. You can follow Aborsh, her podcast about abortion in Canada on Instagram @aborshpod

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