Punishing Women Who Had Abortions?

Cases where women were punished for having an abortion are hard to find. Though women obtaining abortions could be punished according to Canada’s first Criminal Code, records show that it was likely only abortion providers who were tried and punished.

Constance Backhouse, from the University of Western Ontario, found 50 abortion-related cases that involved abortion before it became legal in Canada. These cases involved someone being charged with performing, or helping aid in, an abortion.1 These abortion-related legal cases came from Ontario between 1900 and 1929, and from the rest of Canada from 1900 to 1950.

Of these cases, she found very few involving a case against the woman who wanted the abortion:

It was not uncommon for criminal authorities to charge the male partners of the pregnant women, particularly where they were active in securing the services of an abortionist. In contrast, it was exceedingly rare for charges to be laid against pregnant women who sought abortions, in part because of the degree of public sympathy generated by their plight. Furthermore, authorities often secured testimony against the abortionist by promising the aborted patient immunity from prosecution.2

Backhouse did find two cases of women who were charged. One was sentenced to six months in jail and three month in hard labour and one was acquitted.3

Back to History of Abortion Law in Canada

  1. Constance Backhouse, Physicians, Abortions, and the Law in Early Twentieth-Century Ontario in the Faculty of Law, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, CBMHIBCHM / Volume 10: 1993.
  2. Backhouse, 238.
  3. Backhouse, Footnote from article: For rare examples of charges against the pregnant women, see Rex v. Holmes (1902), 9 B.C.R. 294 (B.C.S.C.), which resulted in an acquittal and The King v. Dr. Allen McDonald and Hazel Eliza Lotan, March 1928, idd dies ex County ~r&inal Court Records, Summary Conviction Papers 1918-28, D. B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario, Regional Collection, Box 596 and Middlesex County Court Records, D.B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario, Regional Collection, Box 152, where the accused woman received a sentence of six months’ determinate and three months’ indeterminate imprisonment at hard labor.