Book Review: Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice After Morgentaler

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice after Morgentaler. Edited by Shannon Stettner, Kristin Burnett & Travis Hay. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017. vi, 372 p. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-7748-3574-9 (paper) $34.95.

Reviewed by Megan Siu
Community Development & Educational Specialist
Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta (CPLEA)
In CLLR 43:3

Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice after Morgentaler is a carefully crafted collection of essays that detail the historical and contemporary context of abortion and reproductive rights in Canada. The essays are organized into four thematic parts titled “History,” “Experience,” “Politics,” and “Discourse and Reproductive Justice,” respectively.

The essays in part 1 each discuss social issues that dominated the abortion discussion at different points in Canadian history. For instance, Niitsitapi midwifery practices were dismissed as illegitimate due to a lack of official accreditation. Women and girls who sought out abortion services were judged as being responsible for their own problems. The first few essays, far from easing the reader into the underlying social issues surrounding abortion, move directly to the heart of the matter and set the tone for what comes next.

Part 2 is a whirlwind tour through the political movements surrounding abortion. The essays follow the emergence of Canadian feminism alongside the simultaneous rise of the pro-choice versus anti-abortion debate. Readers will note the re-categorization of abortion and reproductive rights as they move from a criminal issue, to a political issue, and, finally, to a healthcare issue. A look at the inconsistency between laws that support a woman’s right to abortion and the service or disservice provided by medical professionals highlights the unequal treatment of women and women’s bodies.

Part 3 takes a more in-depth look at the legal side of abortion in Canada, including the liberalization and decriminalization of abortion, as well as a comparison of how abortion is treated in Canada versus the United States, and shifts in the anti-abortion movement. The essays specifically talk about section 251 of the Canadian Criminal Code as amended in 1969 and section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as cited in R v Morgentaler, which were instrumental in changes to abortion law in Canada.

Part 4 analyzes the reproductive justice framework and its counterpart, the anti-abortion advocacy framework. Readers who identify as pro-choice are asked to objectively consider the anti-abortion position in order to understand the limits of a choice-centred discourse and come up with solutions for the issues posited by new-age anti-abortion advocates. These final few essays assert that for women experiencing systemic, administrative, and environmental barriers to abortion services, there is an imminent need for an intersectional consideration of access.

The 14 essays are preceded by an introduction and succeeded by a conclusion written by the editors. The conclusion is followed by a list of biographies describing the contributors of the essays, who are nearly all academics but with expertise ranging from psychology to architecture to gender studies. This book is unique in that it ties together the perspectives of scholars in history, politics, and law, as opposed to other compilations that focus on works from one particular field, echoing the intersectionality of the modern-day reproductive justice framework. The general message of the book is that true reproductive justice must acknowledge the fact that abortion is more than just a political matter. Rather, abortion is intertwined with larger, underlying social issues including sexism, racism, paternalism, and other forms of exercising power over women, especially for women of colour or women of lower socioeconomic status. Abortion explains that while R v Morgentaler was a landmark decision in Canadian abortion history, it did not solidify women’s rights to abortion nor did it quash the efforts of anti-abortion advocates. It did, however, bring to light the progression of the reproductive justice framework and gaps where there is work to be done.

Canada is now under a Liberal majority government, but that still doesn’t guarantee that women’s rights, and therefore abortion and reproductive rights, are being supported adequately. It’s evident that some changes have happened, but editors Stettner, Burnett, and Hay warn that in the greater scope of things, abortion law in Canada hasn’t actually changed a whole lot.

Due to the various intersections captured in Abortion, it would be a worthwhile read for those interested in history, politics, law, and, of course, reproductive justice.

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