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The Abortion Caravan

The Abortion Caravan was a cross-country protest against the 1969 revisions to the Criminal Code of Canada that—while they legalized abortion—created restrictions which severely restricted safe and reliable access to abortion. The Caravan began in April 1970 with seventeen women leaving Vancouver to go to Ottawa with hundreds of women eventually joining Caravan, and leading to a protest that would shut down Parliament.

Poster for the Abortion Caravan march via the Abortion Caravan scrapbook compiled by Marge Hollibaugh, 1970. (via Rise Up Feminist Archive).


Abortion was criminalized in Canada in 1869 with the creation of the Criminal Code of Canada. When abortions were performed, they occurred illegally and in secret. Some women sought out so-called “back alley” abortions that were performed by “lay abortionists” which were not typically safe, and posed a  threat to the health of the individual procuring the abortion. Changing social norms and pressures from the women’s movement and physicians led, in 1969, to changes to the Criminal Code of Canada legalizing abortion. Although there were important caveats, and despite calls for “abortion on demand” by the women’s movement the changes to the law made abortion legal only if the abortion was approved by a hospital committee (called a therapeutic abortion committee) that was comprised of three doctors or more (and provided by a fourth doctor) at an approved hospital. Furthermore, the therapeutic abortion committee was only to approve abortions if the continuation of the pregnancy would jeopardize the life or well being of the pregnant woman. The changes to the law meant that abortion was decriminalized in one respect, but also that most women seeking abortions would not, in actuality, be able to do so.  

The Caravan     

In April of 1970, seventeen women, many of whom were affiliated with the Vancouver Women’s Caucus, left Vancouver and drove to Ottawa in hopes of pressuring the federal government to repeal the provisions on abortion in the Criminal Code, and allow for abortion on demand. In addition to changes to the law, the women also called for the Minister of Justice to pardon all people who had been convicted or charged under any relevant provisions of the Criminal Code. Further, they called for community-based clinics, led by women, to provide birth control, abortions, and other sexual health procedures. This became “the first national protest to call for unrestricted access to legal abortions”.

In a letter to then-Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Caravaners made their demands clear. The letter opens with, “Sirs: We are FURIOUS WOMEN in a nation that does not recognize or respect our basic rights as human beings and citizens of Canada.” This powerful statement is followed by a list of charges for which the women meant to hold the government accountable, including the death of 2,000 women each year from illegal abortions, 20,000 hospitalizations “and possible mutilations” from illegal abortions, and the government “responsible for the psychological, physiological and economic oppression and degradation of thousands of women.” To conclude the letter, the women demanded an “Emergency Meeting be called to end the deaths caused by illegal abortions,” as well as relevant meetings between the Caravaners and the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Health, and Members of Parliament.

Along their trek to Ottawa, the women made stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, and Toronto to hold town halls and meetings, and to perform theatre presentations to portray the challenges and dangerous outcomes faced by women regarding illegal abortions. They brought a black coffin with them to represent the deaths of the women who could not procure safe, legal abortions. Their slogans, “Abortion is Our Right” and “We Are Furious Women” worked to garner support from the residents of each city. Eventually, hundreds of women joined the original seventeen on their journey to change the abortion laws.

Upon arriving in Ottawa, the Caravan received limited attention from the government. They demanded attention by proceeding to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s residence carrying their black coffin and wearing black clothing in a mock funeral procession to symbolize the deaths of the women before them. They were not met with any reaction other than the police waiting for them and shutting down their protest.  On May 11, 1970, the Caravan had a new plan—some of the women were selected to enter the House of Commons to protest, with others continuing to march outside. Thirty-six women chained themselves to their seats in the House of Commons and began speaking up about the dangers of the abortion laws, eventually becoming the first ever protest to shut down Parliament.

The protest in Ottawa (outside) on May 9, 1970. (Image credit: Charlotte Bedard via Rise Up Feminist Archive)

The Lasting Influence of the Abortion Caravan

Although it was not until eighteen years later that the Supreme Court of Canada would declare the abortion law unconstitutional, the Abortion Caravan has an important influence on access to abortion in Canada. The Caravan drew Canadians’ attention to the issue of abortion on demand, and the challenges that women were experiencing accessing abortion despite the changes to the abortion law that made it, for the first time since 1869, legal. Furthermore, the Abortion Caravan galvanized many in the women’s movement around the issue of reproductive rights. Support for abortion on demand would continue, and would, after nearly another two decades of mobilizing, lead to the repeal of the abortion law.

This is not to say that abortion in Canada is entirely accessible. In fact, only 1 in 6 hospitals offer abortions and most are within a 150-kilometer radius of the Canada-United States border. Although abortion has been decriminalized in such areas, barriers remain in some provinces that make access to abortion difficult for many.  Still, the work of the Abortion Caravan made an important impact on Canadian politics, and particularly the reproductive rights of women and girls.

Additional Resources

Contributors: Fatima Awan, Marjia Blazevic, Brooke Daniels, Youli David, Dorian Lushugurhi