Vancouver Women's Caucus fights for reproductive rights (Abortion Caravan), Canada, 1970


The Women's Caucus demanded removal of abortion from the Canadian Criminal Code, Section 251, which enforced that a hospitalized abortion could only be legally performed if it was proven by a Theraputic Abortion Committee (often all male) to be endangering a women's life.

Time period notes

The exact endpoint of this campaign is unclear. The Abortion Caravan campaign slowed after the main protests at the Ottawa Senate on 11 and 12 May 1970, and halted sometime between then and June 1970.

Time period

14 February, 1970 to June, 1970



Location City/State/Province

Vancouver, British Columbia; Ottawa, Ontario

Location Description

The Vancouver Court House, House of Commons in Ottawa
Jump to case narrative


The Vancouver Women's Caucus Group


Women and university students who supported the Caucus demonstrations initially in Vancouver.
The few male supporters who joined the demonstrations in Vancouver later on.
Women who came out to and spoke at the supportive public forums put on by the Caravan as they traveled across Canada.
The women who joined the Abortion Caravan when it traveled across Canada, and local women supporters in Ottawa, all who made up the 500 women at the House of Commons.
The local leftist and feminist co-ops in Ottawa that lent them an array of fancy clothing for their main protests at Parliament Hill.

External allies

Not known

Involvement of social elites

NDP MP Andrew Brewin, a supportive Christian leftist, asked the Minister of Justice John Turner if he would consider reviewing the abortion law.
The NDP's Grace MacInnis, who was the only female MP at the time (cousin of Ellen Woodsworth, one of the protestors who shackled herself to a seat in the parliamentary gallery)
Jackie Larkin, the national organizer for the NDP's radical Waffle wing was a protestor in the House wearing gloves (she pretended not to know her parliamentary cohorts on the elevator that day)


The Supreme Court of Canada
Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau
Minister of Justice of John Turner
The majority of the male-dominated MP constituency in the Ottawa Senate
Theraupeutic Abortion Committees (mostly male-dominated)
The guards at the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons who eventually managed to pull out all the female protestors

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

Not known

Repressive Violence

Fifty-plus women were arrested.


Human Rights



Group characterization

politcally active women's liberation group

Groups in 1st Segment

local female supporters in Vancouver
university students in Vancouver

Groups in 2nd Segment

few male supporters in Vancouver

Groups in 4th Segment

local female supporters in Vancouver (exit)
university stundents in Vancouver (exit)
few male supporters in Vancouver (exit)

Groups in 5th Segment

supporters joining the Abortion Caravan to Ottawa
women who supported the Caravan's meetings across Canada

Groups in 6th Segment

local Ottawa supporters
NDP MP Andrew Brewin
National Organizer Jackie Larkin for the NDP's radical Waffle wing
NDP MP Grace MacInnis
women who supported the Caravan's meetings across Canada (exit)
local leftist and feminist co-ops in Ottawa

Segment Length

Approximately 2 weeks

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

0 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


2 out of 3 points

Total points

3 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

The women of the Caravan would not see abortion completely removed from the Criminal Code until eighteen years later in 1988. But their campaign would turn into a national women's movement of passionate activists who continued their fight and fulfilled their goals many years later.

Database Narrative

Reforms to the Canadian Criminal Code legalized abortion in 1969. Under the direction of Pierre Trudeau’s government, a constitutional amendment was made to Section 251 of the Code. The alteration limited legal abortions to be performed only when the mother’s health was at risk. In addition, abortions could only be performed in credible hospitals with licensed physicians and needed to be approved by a panel of doctors called Therapeutic Abortion Committees, which often consisted of all males.


All other abortions were considered illegal under the Criminal Code. The restrictions angered the Canadian citizens who had supported the recent legalization of abortion. Thousands of Canadian women continued to die or injure themselves each year causing self-performed abortions using coat hangers and knitting needles.

The Vancouver Women’s Caucus Group sped into action by organizing several actions around the abortion issue, the first beginning in Vancouver on 14 February 1970. These were also the first demonstrations calling for ‘abortion on demand’ in Canadian history. This concept means that it is the right of a pregnant woman to have an abortion performed solely at her request. The women's goal was to have abortion completely removed as a part of the Canadian Criminal Code, Section 251.

Most of the demonstrations took place at the Vancouver Court House and mainly involved picketing and rallying. The women also used guerilla theatre to push their demands; they organized a skit that featured a Therapeutic Action Committee of three doctors who turned away a majority of applicants seeking an abortion. The Committee in the skit only offered the procedure to one applicant – a woman wearing a fur coat and holding a silver spoon in her mouth to indicate her higher class and status in society.

Shortly after these demonstrations the Women’s Caucus announced their plans for an “Abortion Caravan.” The Caucus mapped out a plan to travel from Vancouver to Ottawa by caravan in order to protest the new abortion law at Parliament Hill, the nation’s capitol.  In organizing this action, the organizers recognized that not all women would have the ability to participate, and attempted to create opportunities for women with less flexible schedules to show their support.

The Abortion Caravan set out for Ottawa on 27 April 1970 with seventeen women participating. They took three vehicles, one of which was a Volkswagen with a coffin full of coat hangers strapped to its rooftop, representing the thousands of women dying each year from botched abortions. While en route to Ottawa, the Women's Caucus held public meetings at stopovers in towns and cities every night. This gave women an opportunity to speak publicly about their own experiences and concerns in a supportive environment.

The Women’s Caucus gathered additional supporters as they travelled across Canada, then local citizens upon arrival in Ottawa. By the time the Caucus reached their destination, they totaled to 500. The Caravan symbolically arrived on 9 May, the eve of Mother’s Day weekend (9-11 May). 

Dozens of these women visited local leftist and feminist co-ops in Ottawa to borrow an array of fancy clothing, including dresses, gloves, purses, high-heeled shoes, and panty hose. They also did their hair and wore makeup. All of this was done so the women could “…put on the camouflage of respectability to infiltrate the House of Commons.” 

The Women’s Caucus was prepared for the possibility of arrest so they collected donations ahead to have bail money. The women also planned for some protestors to sit at lookout on benches around the gardens of the Ottawa Senate and on motorcycles nearby so they were prepared to follow any cars taking away arrested demonstrators.

Hundreds of women rallied for two days straight at the Ottawa Senate during Mother’s Day weekend. On the first day, 11 May, around eighty women wore black headscarves and began circling the Centennial flame. A few protestors carried the symbolic coffin, and many hoisted banners stating, ‘Twelve thousand women die.’

On the same day, another fifty women barged in on the sitting House, shackling themselves to seats with chains from their purses and chanting "free abortions on demand." Other women, who had successfully positioned themselves in the House seats unnoticed, then stood up in their seats one after another, delivering speeches and messages to the male-dominated constituency of MPs. 

After about thirty minutes of these activities in the House, security guards escorted the women out of the building. This was the first time ever that the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons needed to be forcibly adjourned and shut down in its 103-year history. 

At the end of the second day, a few protestors dumped the symbolic coffin filled with coat hangers on Trudeau’s doorstep. They also burned an effigy of Trudeau and left it on his doorstep as well.

The Canadian parliament did not remove abortion from the Canadian Criminal Code until eighteen years later in 1988.  The Women’s Caucus laid the foundations for other activist groups to continue their work and reach this goal many years later. The Women’s Caucus, soon after renamed The National Women's Political Caucus, continued to meet annually.


89 Canadian Rebellions. Angie Gallop. 2007. This Magazine et al. July-August 2007.

Ormsby, Mary. “The ‘Abortion Caravan’ succeeded. Or did it?” The Toronto Star 30 May. 2010, national ed.

N/a. “The Fight for Reproductive Choice: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus.” Participant manual presented at the CAW Women’s Conference, n/a., 2010.

Dionne Jr., E.J. “Women's Caucus Is Focusing on Abortion Rights.” The New York Times 6 Aug. 1989, U.S. Ed.

Sethna, Christabelle and Hewitt, Steve. “Clandestine Operations: The Vancouver Women’s Caucus, the Abortion Caravan and the RCMP.” The Canadian Historical Review 9.3 (Sept. 2009): 463-495. Project Muse Journals. 24 Apr. 2013

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Elizabeth J. Morrison, 06/03/2013