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.
In 1969, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau) reformed the criminal code to legalize abortion under certain, limited circumstances. An abortion would be permitted if a woman could prove that carrying the pregnancy to term would be harmful for physical or psychological reasons — a process that required a referral from a doctor and an assessment by a panel of physicians tasked with determining whether the mother’s physical or mental health would indeed be threatened by the pregnancy. Although American women might still travel north to seek abortions, these extra bureaucratic steps could be daunting, and required additional resources and precious time. Morgentaler continued to provide abortions without approval by local panels and faced prosecution repeatedly until 1988.
After New York decriminalized abortion in 1970, the flow of women across the border reversed direction. The state’s new abortion law allowed women to obtain an abortion for any reason until the 24th week of pregnancy, and there were no restrictions based on age or marital status. Significantly for Canadian women and those across the United States, there was no residency requirement; if you could travel to New York, you could obtain a legal abortion there. About 70 percent of women obtaining abortions in the state in the first year after the law went into effect did not reside in New York state. In 1970 alone, the state provided abortions to 1,649 Canadian women. That number rose to 6,000 the following year. New York became the top destination for a legal abortion for women in America and neighboring Canada in those few years before Roe was decided in 1973.
In an age before the internet, women arranged abortions by relying on information provided by friends and acquaintances, university and college student support groups, and the mainstream press, which in Canada ran numerous stories on women crossing the border to terminate pregnancies. The most popular English-language Canadian women’s magazine, Chatelaine, ran an advice column in 1972 that advised, “New York State is much more humane to women [than Canadian physicians and authorities] and they will accept Canadians unquestioningly.”
Both nonprofit and for-profit organizations arose to connect Canadian women with clinics in New York. The Betty Farhood Center was a prominent abortion referral agency in Montreal, and once New York legalized abortion, it opened branches in Ottawa, Quebec City and Chicoutimi. The agency offered information in English and French, and it arranged travel as well as referrals to U.S. clinics. Hospitals in western New York were inundated with inquiries from Canadian women. One Rochester obstetrician said he and his associates received an average of seven calls a day from doctors in Canada (as well as other U.S. states).
Abortion clinics emerged in communities located near the border to capitalize on the proximity to the Canadian market. One Montreal center routinely referred women to a facility in Schuyler Falls, N.Y. (near Plattsburgh, about an hour’s drive south of Montreal), where a converted farmhouse advertised itself as the Plattsburgh Clinic. The Plattsburgh community had a population of roughly 18,500 people in 1970, compared with Montreal’s population of well over 2.5 million. The Plattsburgh Clinic eventually opened its own referral agency in Montreal.
The possibility of Canadian women traveling for an abortion was so well known that in 1970 the University of Toronto’s student newspaper created a mock Monopoly game about student life. The game featured a Community Chest card that informed players: “You find yourself pregnant. If upper class, fly to England for an abortion. Pay $500. If middle class, go to Buffalo and pay $300. If lower class, have the baby. Pay $500 medical fees, sell your property and drop out.”
With the Dobbs decision, the tides of abortion access have turned again. U.S. states are now free to restrict abortion access, while Canada will remain more open. This will affect Americans living in restrictive states as well as Canadians. Karina Gould, Canadian minister of families, children and social development, acknowledged that Dobbs will adversely affect people in her country who do not live near a major city in Canada and rely on abortion access in the United States.
But people will still seek abortions, legal or not. History has taught us that making abortion illegal does not eliminate abortions. Curbing access simply moves people to seek abortions elsewhere, sometimes far from home and across international borders — the lucky ones, at least, who can afford to travel.