Abortion in New Brunswick

by Lianne McTavish

When the editors of Acadiensis asked me to write an article on the history of abortion in New Brunswick, I immediately said yes. I study the history of abortion, pregnancy, and childbirth broadly but specialize in early modern Europe. I am a longtime supporter of reproductive justice, lobbying governments for increased access both to midwifery and abortion care. When I lived in Fredericton between 1996 and 2007, I volunteered at the Morgentaler Clinic, walking women and their families past anti-abortion protestors and into the clinic every week. Given this knowledge base, I foolishly believed that it would be easy to write about abortion in New Brunswick. I can probably whip up this article in a few weeks, I optimistically told myself. I was wrong. As usual, I had misjudged the challenges of the task ahead of me.

First I had to face the overwhelming amount of scholarship on abortion that addresses its history, politicization, and legislation. Many feminist scholars, historians, political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, and anthropologists have explored, among other things, the consequences of illegal abortion, shifting representation of abortion in the media, and relatively few people who are on the “front lines” of the so-called abortion wars, protesting for or against the moral and legal right to terminate a pregnancy. While important work continues to emerge,[1] I did not want to write yet another, slightly more regionally specific account of the pro-choice versus anti-abortion conflict, inevitably pitting women against fetuses in an ahistorical fashion. This approach would furthermore be at odds with analyses of the historical and cultural invention of the fetus. Historian Barbara Duden, for example, has argued that during the early modern period pregnancy was notoriously difficult to diagnose, and was uncertain until a woman felt “quickening” or movement within her body, authorizing her (and her alone) to pronounce herself pregnant.[2] During the early modern period, there was no separable “fetus” per se, though engraved images of floating figures in detached wombs were produced from the ninth through the eighteenth centuries in Europe. My own scholarship has shown that these images were diagrams, guiding the medical practitioners called to assist at dangerous deliveries as they strove to imagine the hidden contents of the labouring woman’s body, using their hands rather than their eyes.[3] More recently, anthropologist Lynn M. Morgan has explored how the practices of collecting by medical men during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States worked to materialize the fetus as a valuable object. Though saving embryos and fetuses in jars would now be considered objectionable by many people for diverse reasons, Morgan demonstrates that the fetus is a shifting concept that has differed over time. It is not simply a natural fact that has been more or less understood by scientists; nor is it a stable entity about which people have always had conflicting opinions.[4]


Clinic 554 in Fredericton, NB.

Secondly, I had to consider the substantial literature on abortion in Canada. Although many discussions of the twentieth-century abortion debates and attacks on women’s rights in the United States are applicable to Canada, the differences between the two countries have been explored at length.[5] Canadian legal and cultural historians have studied the particular development of abortion legislation in Canada, highlighting the feminists who fought to legalize abortion, especially those participating in the famous Abortion Caravan that travelled in 1970 from Vancouver to Ottawa in protest and, of course, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the abortion rights activist who changed the practice of abortion care in Canada.[6] Yet even when the Supreme Court of Canada removed abortion from the criminal code in 1988, women’s access to abortion remained limited and was uneven across Canada, varying according to geographical location, age, and social status.[7] While all of this work is important, little of it made specific reference to New Brunswick. I did not want to insert New Brunswick into a national narrative, positioning it as a footnote or aberration. Nor did I want to focus on the historical development of abortion legislation within the province because that would leave women out of the picture, ignoring their needs, bodies, and methods of decision making. Some of the most important recent studies of abortion have been anthropological in nature, showing how differently African, Chinese, and French women have experienced pregnancy and abortion.[8]

In the end, however, I structured my article as a discussion of the history of abortion legislation in New Brunswick. This legislation was in fact influential, impacting the laws in the rest of Canada during the nineteenth century. Evidence of these legal changes also survives in the documents, unlike the unfortunate dearth of first-hand accounts of women’s abortion experiences. All the same, in order to avoid writing another chronological overview that highlighted the 1988 Supreme Court Decision, I chose three moments, starting in 1810, when New Brunswick “led the way” by passing the first abortion restrictions in what would become Canada. Trying to figure out how and why such strict anti-abortion legislation was adopted during the nineteenth century in New Brunswick was incredibly time consuming and, I am reluctant to admit, ultimately impossible. The more recent legislative changes in the province were far easier to research. My second historical moment is in 1985, when New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield’s Progressive Conservative government passed Bill 92, making it illegal for abortions to be performed outside of hospitals. This legislation was created to thwart Dr. Morgentaler’s efforts to set up a free-standing abortion clinic in the province. The third significant policy transformation that I selected was in 2015, when the newly elected Liberal government led by Premier Brian Gallant amended Regulation 84-20, making it slightly easier for New Brunswick women to access abortion services.

Another reason I finally settled on this approach is that legal challenges to abortion legislation have almost always been necessary to effect a change the delivery of abortion services in New Brunswick. The provincial government has typically taken up a defiant stance against Ottawa by refusing to fund abortions done in clinics, shaping an image of the province as anti-abortion while saving money at the expense of women, issues I discuss in my recent article for Acadiensis. Women’s access to fully funded abortion care remains restricted in New Brunswick, and another law suit aimed at remedying this situation by requiring the government to fund the abortions done in clinics is not impossible. After all, a related situation is currently playing out in Prince Edward Island. In this case, the provincial government has refused to support the delivery of abortion services within the province, requiring women to travel to Halifax and more recently Moncton to obtain a funded abortion. The government of Prince Edward Island is now being sued over its lack of abortion services by Abortion Access Now P.E.I., a local advocacy group. Premier Wade MacLauchlan recently admitted that politics and not health policy have shaped the decision to refuse to allow abortion care within the province, arguing that it respects the divided views of Islanders.[9] Cost is certainly not the reason for restricting abortion services within Prince Edward Island, for a pilot project developed in 2014 featured doctors from Nova Scotia and the Island providing abortion care for free in local hospitals, a plan that would have saved the provincial government approximately $37,000 a year.[10] This money-saving plan was shut down by the provincial government. By leaving the decision up to the courts, the provincial government of P.E.I. effectively side steps the issue, providing full services only when legally forced to do so. This stance is not unlike that taken up by successive government in New Brunswick, though they have restricted abortion care to two certified hospitals, forcing many women to continue to pay for abortion services at the clinic—now called Clinic 554—in Fredericton.

Lianne McTavish is a Professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta.


[1] See for example Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).

[2] Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn (Harvard University Press, 1993).

[3] Lianne McTavish, Childbirth and the Display of Authority in Early Modern France (Ashgate, 2005).

[4] Lynn M. Morgan, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos (University of California Press, 2009).

[5] See, for instance, Drew Halfmann, Doctors and Demonstrators: How Political Institutions Shape Abortion Laws in the United States, Britain and Canada (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[6] See, for example, Judy Rebick, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution (Penguin Canada, 2005).

[7] See, for example, Wendy V. Norman et. al., “Barriers to Rural Induced Abortion Services in Canada: Findings of the British Columbia Abortion Providers Survey [BCAPS],” PLOS ONE 8, no. 6, 28 June 2013, 1-7

[8] See, for example, Elaine Gale Gerber, RU 486: French Women’s Experience of Abortion and Embodiment (PhD Diss, University of California at Los Angeles, 1999).

[9] Teresa Wright, “Defending status quo for abortion on P.E.I.,” The Guardian, 28 December 2015: http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/News/Local/2015-12-28/article-4388343/Defending-status-quo-for-abortion-on-P.E.I./1

[10] (“Abortion service on P.E.I. would have saved money: report,” CBC News, 20 October 2014: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/abortion-service-on-p-e-i-would-have-saved-money-report-1.2803587

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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1 Response to Abortion in New Brunswick

  1. David Bell says:

    For what it’s worth, in the Geo Grimmer papers at NB Museum there is correspondence about the 1878 failure to appear of a Charlotte County man charged with providing medicines with intent to procure an abortion.

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