Black Holes: Canada’s Missing Abortion Data

Read the complete report as a PDF Download.

A Brief Examination of Canada’s Abortion Data Collection Policies and an Analysis of Ontario’s New Legislation

A Brief History: 1969 Abortion Law

The advent of Canada’s 1969 abortion law, which partially decriminalized the procedure, brought with it a request from the federal departments of Justice and Health and Welfare that the impact of the new legislation be monitored.  The Dominion Bureau of Statistics (now known as Statistics Canada) was chosen for the job and tasked with collecting, compiling, and publishing data on the number of abortions being performed under the new law.

For the first 16 years, the abortion reports were ”timely, comprehensive, and met the increasing data needs of the user.” This was reflected in positive feedback from the Justice Minister of the time, the Canadian Medical Association, media, pro-life and pro-choice abortion groups, and international agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Population Council. In 1986, budget cuts within Statistics Canada suspended data collection and analysis for 15 months. The program was reinstated by the Minister of Industry, responsible for Statistics Canada, due to pressure from users across Canada, members of provincial legislatures, Members of Parliament and pro-life and pro-choice groups alike. However, provinces were now required to play a greater role in the data collection process. This resulted in the loss of the direct connection Statistics Canada had with the nation’s hospitals, data submission occurring annually instead of monthly, and electronic submissions replacing print. Issues of timeliness and data quality arose almost immediately as a result of these changes.  

Abortion Law: Struck Down

Although it is unclear whether subsection 251(5) the Criminal Code actually required hospitals to submit their data, the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 decision to strike down the abortion law (then s. 251 of the Criminal Code, now section 287) became the basis for a number of hospitals and provincial ministry respondents to stop collecting and reporting data.  Additionally, private clinics began to emerge in several provinces because the law no longer stipulated that abortions could only be performed in hospitals.  

After the Supreme Court’s decision, Statistics Canada continued to collect what data they could before the data collection responsibilities were transferred to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) in 1995.  CIHI, although not a governmental department, is funded by the federal, provincial and territorial governments.  Initially, CIHI collected the data and Statistics Canada maintained the responsibility of releasing it.  In 2006, CIHI took over both data collection and publication duties.


Related Topics