A Guide from the Past for Travelers Seeking an AbortionRoundup
tags: abortion, Canadian history, reproductive rights
Sarah Elvins is a professor of American history at the University of Manitoba who writes about the history of consumption. She is co-writing an article about abortion referrals and cross-border travel between Canada and the U.S.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — rescinding the constitutional right to an abortion extended by Roe v. Wade and sending jurisdiction back to the states — will escalate the need for women to travel far from home to get an abortion. This, of course, was already happening. The abortion provider in Jackson at the center of the Dobbs case was the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi, forcing many people to cross the state for services. The situation promises to get much worse, however, with the federal protection of Roe now gone.
Supporters of legal abortion have been preparing for this outcome for months. In southern Illinois, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers have been gearing up for an increase in women from Missouri seeking care from across the state border. Lawmakers in New York, Oregon and California preemptively appropriated millions of dollars for abortion providers in their states, with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) tweeting in April that her state “will always be a safe haven for people who need abortion care.” Facebook groups have also been filling up with posts by individuals willing to host those who need to “visit” their state, no questions asked.
Women traveling to procure abortions is nothing new. Before the 1973 Roe ruling, state-to-state travel existed, as did highly organized transnational networks to guide women across borders.
Mexico, for example, was a major destination for American women in need of abortion services from the 1940s through the 1960s, when clinics close to the U.S. border in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez operated with little resistance from local Mexican police. American women of modest means used referral services to connect them to reliable abortion providers across the southern border, often driving thousands of miles to access care.
Those who were more affluent could fly to Europe. In 1970, one abortion referral service, the London Agency Inc. of Springfield, Mass., offered American women transportation, passports, health certificates, hotel accommodations and entry into a private hospital in London that could provide an abortion for $1,250.
By the late 1960s, another option for American women to obtain a safe abortion abroad emerged — one that was particularly convenient for women living in the Northeast. In 1968, Canadian abortion practitioner and activist Henry Morgentaler began openly providing abortions in Montreal, though illegal under Canadian law. His clinic received referrals from across Canada and, eventually, from the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in the United States, a group of Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis committed to referring women to doctors for safe abortions. But the clinic faced ongoing legal challenges. Montreal police raided Morgentaler’s clinic in June 1970 when the boyfriend of a woman traveling from the United States to obtain an abortion tipped off the FBI in the hopes of receiving a lighter sentence for marijuana possession. The FBI in turn contacted Montreal authorities.
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