In Protest of Anti-Choice Legislation, “The Abortion Caravan” Shut Down Canadian Parliament 50 Years Ago

In Protest of Anti-Choice Legislation, "The Abortion Caravan" Shut Down Canadian Parliament 50 Years Ago
Gloria Steinem called Karin Wells’s The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, “One irresistible story from the journey towards women owning their own bodies.”

Fifty years ago, seventeen angry, defiant young women decided to do something about Canada’s abortion laws.

They set out from the west coast in a Volkswagen van, a pickup truck and a great big Pontiac Parisienne convertible. The van had a big black coffin on top—symbolizing the thousands of women who died as a result of back street abortions.

They stopped at ten towns and cities across Canada holding rallies, doing guerrilla theatre, sleeping on basement floors and adding more women to the Caravan as they went. 

By the time they reached Ottawa, Canada’s capital, they were exhausted, even more defiant—and five hundred strong. They marched on the parliament buildings and, when no one from government would meet them, they decided to pay the prime minister a visit.

Excerpt from Chapter 10 of The Abortion Caravan—published by Second Story Press, April 21, 2020:

(content has been edited and condensed)

It is about a mile and a half from the parliament buildings to the prime minister’s residence. It took these several hundred women—some pushing baby carriages—half an hour to make that walk, singing and making noise all the way. The Ottawa police gave them a motorcycle escort.  It would have been impossible, you would think, not to know they were coming.

Yet when they arrived at the PM’s residence, the gates were open and there were four—only four—Mounties standing in the driveway. Never breaking stride and with the momentum of three hundred women behind them, they pushed their way in. Marcy Cohen was in the front row. “We just linked arms and walked in. The Mounties didn’t know what to do”…. And so they did nothing. The women settled comfortably on the prime minister’s front lawn. 

The Mounties regrouped and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who was not at home, got a phone call. Several hundred women sitting on the PM’s front lawn added up to a “politically sensitive situation”. Four days earlier the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students, including two young women, who were protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University. The Kent State shootings shocked Canadians. Front-page photographs of the Mounties forcibly removing young women—at least one of whom was pregnant—would not play well for the Canadian government. The prime minister did not disagree. The Mounties were hamstrung.

The women said, “We won’t move until the abortion law is reformed.” The more practical were thinking, that could take a while, and we don’t have any food. It had been a long day with a lot of walking. The children were getting irritable and it was starting to rain. They were as stuck as the Mounties.

Marcy Cohen, by then a leader of the group, negotiated with the police through a megaphone and they were permitted to place the coffin, the ever-present symbol of the Caravan, on the prime minister’s veranda. It was two of the original Vancouver women who broke the impasse and turned a bad situation into a solemn ceremony. Both had a way with words. Gwen Hauser, with Mounties standing over her, read a poem. Then Margo Dunn stepped up. She moved to the front, stood over the coffin, and, with hundreds of women and a score of police officers looking on, delivered her speech.

“There are garbage bags on top of that coffin. These are used to pack the uterus to induce labor. They often cause massive infection, resulting in sterilization, permanent disability or death….

There are knitting needles on top of that coffin. These are used to put in the vagina in order to pierce the uterus. Severe bleeding results….

There is a bottle, which is a container for Lysol, on top of the coffin. When used for cleaning, it is in a solution. Women seeking to abort themselves inject it full strength into their vaginas. This results in severe burning of tissues, haemorrhage, and shock. Dearth comes within a matter of minutes….

There is part of a vacuum cleaner on top of that coffin. The hose is placed in the vagina in order to extract the fetus but results in the entire uterus being sucked out from the pelvic cavity…”

She put her bag of illegal abortion tools on top of the coffin, a gesture that was both defiant and reverential. The Mounties standing outside the prime minister’s house that afternoon were visibly uncomfortable

The women gathered themselves up and retreated, exhausted rather than defeated. They had embarrassed Canada’s national security force. But embarrassing the Mounties was happenstance. They had come to Ottawa to make face-to-face demands of government, to make change. The Vancouver women had not come three thousand miles to go home empty- handed.

That night the women hatched the plot that got them into the visitors galleries of parliament where they chained themselves to their seats and shouted out he Abortion on Demand speech that shut down Canada’s parliament for the first time ever.

This excerpt has been shortened and edited from The Abortion Caravan: When Women Shut Down Government in the Battle for the Right to Choose, ©Karin Wells, 2020.

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Karin Wells is a Canadian radio documentary maker and a three time recipient of the Canadian Association of Journalists documentary award. Her work has been heard on radio networks around the world and has been recognized by the United Nations.