20 Apr 2012 Confederation to 1969
When Canada was constituted as a nation in 1867, abortion was strictly prohibited. After the halfway point of the 20th century there was increased public pressure to decriminalize abortion. The notable groups that led this push were the Globe and Mail, the United Church and the Canadian Medical Association.
In late 1967 then Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, indicated that his government was going to introduce an Omnibus Bill that would, among many other things, liberalize the existing abortion laws. This bill was dropped when an election was called in the spring of 1968. No sooner had Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau taken office than his new Justice Minister, John Turner announced that the government was going to re-introduce the Omnibus Bill.
On May 9, 1969 the Omnibus Bill passed in Parliament. The new legislation kept abortion as a criminal offence under Section 251 of the Criminal Code, but the parameters used to decide when a woman could request and receive an abortion were relaxed considerably. Prior to the passing of this bill, an abortion was only legal if the ‘life’ of the mother was in danger. Section 251 was now changed so that abortions were permitted if the ‘health’ of the mother was compromised. If a woman wanted to have an abortion she could apply to a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (comprised of three medical doctors), which would rule whether or not the abortion was medically necessary to maintain the woman’s health.
Since “health” was not clearly defined, the Therapeutic Abortion Committees began authorizing almost all the applications they received. As a result, abortion became the second most common surgical procedure in the country.