OTTAWA — Canada's highest court today threw out a 16-year-old law restricting abortions, saying the regulation constitutes a "profound interference" with a woman's body.
The 5-2 decision stunned both pro-choice and anti-abortion organizations.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Criminal Code, which outlaws abortion unless a committee of three doctors decides it is necessary to protect a woman's life or health, "infringes or denies the rights and freedoms guaranteed" in the nation's 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus an infringement of security of the person," the court said.
Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Canada's abortion crusader and the key figure in the suit, told reporters after the decision: "I'm ecstatic. I think it's a wonderful victory for all the women in Canada. It's an extension of freedom for all people in Canada."
Laura McArthur, president of the Toronto Right to Life Assn., said she had expected to win the court challenge.
"This is really a surprise today. We have gone through one crisis after another." McArthur added that she fears that the abortion rate would escalate because of the decision.
The nation's 1982 charter guarantees an individual's right to life, liberty and security of person.
Upholds 1984 Acquittal
By its decision, the court upheld the 1984 jury acquittal of Morgentaler on a charge of procuring a miscarriage and said the Ontario Court of Appeal had no right to order a retrial for Morgentaler in 1985.
The issue has divided politicians at every level of government and set anti-abortion groups against pro-choice supporters.
More than half a million Canadian women have had abortions since 1969, not including the thousands who annually visit clinics in the United States.
In arguments before the Supreme Court 16 months ago, Morgentaler's lawyer said the existing law violates a woman's right to life, liberty and security.
'Security ... Diminished'
Morgentaler said hospital committees often delay abortions as long as five weeks, increasing the danger of major complications or death by more than 30%.
"Obviously security of the person is not enhanced by a law like this. It's diminished," he said.
Government lawyers, who wanted the abortion law upheld, argued that the current law is a "compromise" between the rights of Canadian women and those of the unborn fetus. They said the law was constitutional because it was created by Parliament and reflected the wishes of all Canadians.
They also said recent polls show that 20% of Canadians support abortion on demand, 20% oppose it unequivocally and 60% want restrictions on access to abortion.
The Canadian ruling follows a decision last week by the British House of Commons to restrict abortions to the first 4 1/2 months of pregnancy.