Before the 1989 Morgentaler decision effectively erased criminal restrictions on abortion in Canada, women here routinely travelled south to have their pregnancies ended in the United States.
In neighbouring cities like Buffalo, some doctors even expanded their services to accommodate the cross-border demand, recalls Carolyn Egan, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics.
Now with the U.S. on the verge of ending its own constitutional protection for abortion rights, clinics in this country are bracing for a potential influx in the other direction. That could mean longer waits for service or the possibility of having to grow existing facilities or even open new ones to meet the demand, they say.
“Because it happened historically going south it’s only natural to assume it could happen with Americans going north,” said Egan. “There is a real lived memory of the graciousness provided by clinics in the U.S. when Canadians were in need and I think that would be reciprocated.”
The Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg says it will care for any woman seeking the procedure and that includes Americans, who already come in small numbers, says executive director Kemlin Nembhard.
Still, a mass movement north for abortion would present challenges, she said.
“We’re not going to be turning people away,” said Nembhard. “But as a country that has 10 per cent of the population of what the U.S. has, it’s unrealistic to think we could fulfill the needs of what could potentially be flowing north.”
The issue is already on the radar south of the border, though. If the right to abortion in the States is overturned, “could you go to Canada to have an abortion?” asked the Detroit Free Press in a story this week.
That said, no one really knows what might happen.
The extraordinary leak of a draft decision from one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s judges suggests that Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the American right to abortion, is on the verge of being overturned.
If that happens, states would be free to set their own laws on the controversial issue. Abortion-restricting legislation recently enacted in Texas and other states would be validated, while those still on the books elsewhere from pre-Roe days could be revived.
Removing the abortion right would make no difference in a little under half the U.S. jurisdictions, Democratic strongholds like New York, most of New England and the west coast where the procedure would remain legal — and available to women from abortion-denying jurisdictions.
But some states bordering Canada could well be affected. That includes Michigan and North Dakota, which still have pre-Roe anti-abortion laws, and Montana, which passed legislation in 2019 that’s currently barred by the U.S. constitution.
While much is still uncertain, the possibility of an American influx “is definitely being discussed” among clinics here, said Jill Doctoroff, executive director of the National Abortion Federation Canada. “People who work in abortion care are quite passionate…. Folks want to be as helpful as they can be.”
And Doctoroff said that she’s been approached in recent months by abortion advocates and providers in the States asking about the possibility of Canada dealing with some of the U.S. demand if Roe is overturned.
Meanwhile, the federal government has indicated this country will remain open to serving American women seeking abortions. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said this week he would instruct the Canada Border Services Agency to ensure such patients can enter Canada.
But exactly what a potential influx of abortion tourists might mean for clinics here is less clear, especially since many are currently at or beyond capacity.
Egan said she believes Canadian abortion providers would expand or launch new facilities if the demand grew significantly, saying that clinics in Ontario, at least, are not currently over-burdened.
“If there was indeed a need, I would be pretty optimistic that medical personnel here in Canada would try to set up a facility to help.”
But Nembhard said the number of patients accessing her Winnipeg clinic already exceeds the provincial funding it receives by a quarter to a third every year. Even without an American influx, she’d like to see governments improve the procedure’s availability through more money and other measures — like mandating abortion training in medical schools to increase the pool of doctors who can do the work
“Obviously the U.S. is a much bigger country,” said Joyce Arthur, head of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. “We can’t accommodate huge numbers of people coming up from the United States.”
Meanwhile, if Canada does become an abortion destination for American women, that market may be limited by economic and social factors. Many would be too poor or otherwise marginalized to obtain a passport and pay for transportation to and accommodation in another country, advocates here note.
“Unless reimbursed from American abortion funds,” said Arthur, “it will only be a viable option for women who have some means and can travel.”