In 1969, abortion was legalized in Canada, but only when the procedure was performed in a hospital and had been approved by a committee of doctors. In response to these restrictions, activists launched the cross-country Abortion Caravan in 1970, Canada’s first national pro-choice protest. Though plenty of road has been travelled since then – the problematic abortion law was struck down in 1988 – the fact that it’s still radical, 45 years later, for a woman to talk about her abortion in public suggests the fight isn’t over yet.
What has changed is the conversation’s tone. While passengers on the Abortion Caravan carried a coffin symbolizing women’s deaths from illegal abortions, contemporary campaigns – such as the viral #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag from 2015 – are more likely to focus on women’s lives. The Martha Solomon–edited One Kind Word: Women Share Their Stories of Abortion featured photographs and first-person narratives, each exploring the diverse (and often positive) ways abortion fits into the wider context of women’s experiences.
Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada is a similar project, with a broader canvas. The book, edited by Shannon Stettner, includes personal abortion narratives, but also pieces on abortion rights activism (including Solomon writing about One Kind Word), refutations of anti-choice narratives, accounts by abortion providers and support workers, and a final section on the pro/anti-choice dichotomy, including an essay on sex-selective abortion.
This section includes Karen Stote’s “The Myth of Reproductive Choice: A Call for Radical Change,” which argues that for indigenous women, whose history includes forced sterilization and children forcibly removed from their care, “choice” remains an abstraction. Stote suggests the reproductive rights movement needs to progress toward the notion of “reproductive justice,” an idea Stettner also raises in her introduction; the two pieces are important bookends for this collection.
The problem with bookends, however, is the enormous space in between, and this anthology is weakened by its attempts to be so many different things simultaneously. Stettner’s “A Short History of Abortion in Canada” could be its own book, and the form and quality of other pieces are wildly divergent. The book as a whole suffers from a lack of cohesion.
Still, there are standout selections. Among them are Laura Gillespie’s provocative case for embracing the “pro-abortion” label; various commentaries by abortion support workers attesting to a huge spectrum of experiences; and Stettner’s interview with an abortion provider. Shannon Dea’s “A Harm-Reduction Approach to Abortion” takes a logical approach to the subject, extrapolating from statistics that demonstrate low abortion rates generally correlate to liberal abortion laws to suggest that those who wish to see the fewest abortions should therefore be in support of safe and legal access.
And then there are the first-person testimonies, which underline that while things have improved since the 1970s, access to care across Canada remains uneven, and no two abortions are alike. No book will ever come close to representing a full picture of women’s experiences, but it’s essential we keep reading and writing and publishing these stories anyway.