It’s a long story: The history of birth control in Canada

By Kayla Butler

OTTAWA – Canadian laws surrounding birth control and a woman’s right to control her own body have undoubtedly evolved over the last century. Many women across the country cling to that as a lifeline as some states south of the border challenge abortion laws.

But, just how far have we come?

RELATED: The illusion of choice: Canadian women stonewalled when it comes to reproductive rights

Nearly 130 years ago birth control was considered obscene, tending to corrupt morals, under Canada’s Criminal Code. Unless a couple caught using any kind of birth control methods could prove that its use was “for the public good”, they could face up to two years in jail.

Very different from what you would see today.

Here’s a look at the history of contraception laws in Canada, with a little colour commentary provided by University of Calgary women’s studies professor Rebecca Sullivan.

1920s: Canadians grow more interested in international research in sexuality and the 1892 laws making the use, sale, and advertising of contraception illegal are questioned.

“Everyone is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to two years imprisonment who knowingly, without lawful excuse of justification, offers to sell, advertises, publishes an advertisement of or has for sale or disposal of any medicine, drug or article intended or represented as a means of preventing conception.” (Section 179 of the 1892 Canadian Criminal Code)

Fertility inhibitors can be purchased in secret by couples in the know—or more likely the couples with a higher income.

Couples of a lower socioeconomic standing were less likely to be able to access the existing birth control options.

1923: The first advocacy group is formed in Vancouver, calling for not only making birth control legal but also accessible and free for all who wanted it. There is something of an underground network of doctors who provided birth control options.

Still, lawmakers leaned on the 1892 criminal code to evade the topic.

1930s: A. R. Kaufman creates a birth control program for low-income women in Kitchener Ontario under his Parents’ Information Bureau. Simple contraceptives can be obtained by mail order or couples could get referrals to doctors for diaphragms or sterilization.

The Bureau’s client base quickly balloons to include 25,000 people a year.

1932: Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw opens the first official birth control clinic in Hamilton even though it is illegal to do so.

1955: After the post-war baby boom, public acceptance of birth control grows.

1960: The pill is available in Canada, but doctors can only prescribe it for therapeutic reasons, not as birth control.

1963: Activists organize a collective of birth control societies in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa (Edmonton, Montreal, and Calgary all joined later) and arrange membership in the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). This collective is eventually named the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada (PPFC).

Here’s where things really pick up:

1969: Contraception is legalized in Canada—but with one big exception: abortion. A woman could ask for an abortion, but it wasn’t up to her to have the final say.

“A woman [had to] present her case to a medical tribunal at an accredited hospital. The medical tribunal would decide whether or not she made a good enough case and they would decide if she could get an abortion,” explains Sullivan.

The woman would be left waiting for a letter in the mail with the news.

“[It would say], ‘Hey, we’ve decided that, yes, you can have an abortion come to the hospital on this date.’ Or, ‘Sorry, no. We’ve decided that you have to have this child that you are not equipped to have.’”

1988: Abortion laws go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Sullivan likens the argument against making abortion legal in Canada to zoning laws.

“It actually says just as the government needs to step in and properly zone public property, so too must it properly zone women’s bodies.”

The laws are found to be an unconstitutional violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Abortion is now considered a “medically necessary service”.

Mid-2000s: Abortion rates and teen pregnancies decline steadily year over year.

2015: A survey finds that the most commonly used methods of birth control in Canada were condoms (54%) and the pill, patch, and ring (44%).

-With files from the Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Public Health Association, Kenny Mason, Megan McPhaden

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