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Historical Notes on Abortion in North America   Return to Gender & Health theme page


2. Nice to Know

Most discussions of the modern history of abortion in North America mention the case of Roe versus Wade. Here is a summary:
  Roe v. Wade.
By 1970, five U.S. states had made abortion legal (NY; California; Washington; Alaska; Hawaii).
In 1970, in Dallas, Texas, Norma McCorvey found herself pregnant for the third time. She was poor, uneducated, alcoholic and had a drug problem; she had given two children up for adoption and now she wanted an abortion. She failed to get one, but her case was taken up by liberals seeking to legalize abortion. Her name was changed to Jane Roe to disguise her identity, and the defendant was the Dallas County district attorney Henry Wade. Norma McCorvey's baby was adopted long before the trial came to court.
Following various appeals, on January 22 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion for the whole country, noting that “The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent ... Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. ... There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it.”
    Postscript 1:
The abortion debate remains contentious in the U.S., and years later Norma McCorvey renounced her allegiance to legalized abortion and became a pro-life activist.
    Postscript 2:
In the year following the ruling, 750,000 abortions were carried out in the U.S.; by 1980 the number had levelled off at around 1.6 million. Births fell by about 6% and adoptions fell dramatically (leading subsequently to overseas adoptions). The huge number of abortions has led some to compare legalized abortion to the holocaust, noting that the estimated 37 million abortions between 1973 and 2003 far outnumbered the victims of concentration camps.
    Postscript 3:
Until 1973, abortion was a crime, and many consider it still to be so. But Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner, in the 2001 book Freakonomics, describe another consequence of legalized abortion (one that had been earlier predicted by Henry Morgentaler in Canada).
In the years before 1973, it was costly to obtain a safe illegal abortion, so access was largely restricted to the well-to-do. Following legalization, abortion became available to poorer women, and so the people who took advantage of Roe v. Wade were often unmarried, teenagers, or poor. Levitt & Dubner point out that the children of such women are in turn likely to live in poverty, in a single-parent household, and to receive minimal education. These are all risk factors for a criminal future.
Levitt & Dubner note that by the early 1990s, children who were not born in 1973 or 1974 following the abortion law, would have reached their late teens. And in the early 1990s, crime rates began to fall in the U.S. “And the crime rate continued to fall as an entire generation came of age minus the children whose mothers had not wanted to bring a child into the world. Legalized abortion had led to less unwantedness; unwantedness leads to high crime; legalized abortion, therefore, led to less crime.” (Freakonomics, page 139). Examining this correlation in more detail, Levitt & Dubner note (1) that crime rates fell less steeply in those states which had already legalized abortion before 1973; (2) that those states with the highest abortion rates in the 1970s saw the greatest reductions in crime rates in the 1990s; and (3) that the drop in crime was among younger criminals.
    Postscript 4:
Hay and Evans reviewed empirical evidence for the Levitt & Dubner hypothesis. They concluded that there is, indeed, some impact of the Roe v. Wade ruling, but that this is small (explaining only a fraction of the observed decline in crime) and only relating to delinquency of males aged 11 to 17. Perhaps after age 17 the influence of family declines, compared to external influences on delinquent behavior. They noted, also, that use of contraception may have accounted for part of the decline in crime, which tends to reinforce the idea of unwanted pregnancies placing the offspring at high risk. (Hay C, Evans MM. J. Research in Crime and Delinquency 2006; 43: 36-66)

Canadian History


After abortion was decriminalized in 1988, challenges led the House of Commons to propose a law to recriminalize abortion.  This would have made obtaining an abortion punishable by up to two years in jail unless a doctor determined that continuing a pregnancy threatened a woman's physical, mental or psychological health.  But the bill was defeated by the Senate on January 31, 1991.  To this day there is no federal abortion law in Canada; abortion remains a Charter protected right, but is unregulated. More detail.

Before Bill C-43 was defeated in the Senate, doctors stopped performing abortions for fear of possible criminal prosecution, and many still decline to become involved: fewer than 20% of hospitals in Canada perform abortions. 


Postscript 1:
In November 1994, the first Canadian doctor, Dr. Garson Romalis, was shot in his home in Vancouver.  Two similar shootings followed in 1995 and 1997, in Ontario and Manitoba. All the shootings occurred around Nov. 11, Canada's Remembrance Day holiday for war veterans, a day that the pro-life movement has adopted to memorialize aborted fetuses.
Postscript 2:
In a retrospective interview in January 2008, Morgentaler noted “Doctors performing abortions were no longer considered as criminals and women no longer had to die as a result of illegal abortion.” “Women who had bad abortions died, or were injured to the point that they couldn’t have any more children.”
Dr. Morgentaler was a general practitioner in Montreal; he confronted the choice between helping women obtain a safe abortion but risk going to jail, versus leaving the woman to the dangers of self-induced or non-professional abortion. He saw it as his duty to lead his crusade, as a medical doctor and a humanist. As a child Morgentaler had been interned in concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz, which “gave me a heightened sense of injustice and I saw injustice being meted out to women who needed abortions ... I had a feeling I was fighting for fundamental justice.”

Updated August 5, 2014