One in six Canadian women have received a surgical abortion and some researchers predict one in three Canadian women will have an abortion in their lifetime, most commonly in their first trimester of pregnancy.

Abortion is a relatively ubiquitous part of human experience. Even so, many people do not consider being informed on abortion as a necessary pillar of their adult life in the same way that filing taxes is, for example. As an adult, you deserve to be well-informed so you can support a friend, partner, or family member in the event that they need you to. This process begins with understanding what abortions are like in Canada, who gets them — and what feelings to expect. 

What does abortion look like in Canada?

Abortions are decriminalized at any gestational age in Canada, and they come in two forms: medical and surgical.

A medical abortion is an oral contraceptive administered at an early gestational age. Gestational age refers to how far along a pregnancy is and is often measured from the first day of the last period of the person seeking an abortion rather than from the date of conception. 

Without provincial health care, a medical abortion can cost $300–450 — but several provinces, such as Ontario, New Brunswick, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Québec, cover this prescription. Territories offer regional coverage. At Planned Parenthood, the service is free but admin fees can cost from $40–400. U of T’s health insurance — Green Shield Canada — does not cover this drug, likely since it is already covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP). 

After nine weeks of gestation, once medical abortions are no longer possible, surgical abortions — either through vacuum aspiration or dilation and evacuation — are performed instead. OHIP covers the procedure when performed in hospitals — which the majority of them are, as popular abortion clinics, such as Planned Parenthood Toronto, do not offer surgical abortion. 

The Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion in the 1988 R v. Morgentaler decision, which considered the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional because it violated the Charter security of person. Unlike in the US, in Canada there are no hard deadlines where it would be illegal to receive an abortion. However, there are no federal regulations protecting access to abortion — aside from Bill C-3, which prevents intimidation of patients or health-care providers around clinics — and provinces and providers may regulate abortions as they see fit.

Abortions being decriminalized does not mean they are accessible to all gestational ages. According to data from June 2022, there are no abortion providers in Canada for gestations past 23 weeks and six days; only three service locations in Canada offer abortion up to this date. After 23 weeks and six days, Canadians must travel to the US for abortions, but abortions serviced after this time will not lead to a criminal record.

Abortions after 20 weeks are extremely rare and account for less than 2.5 per cent of all abortions in Canada. It is important to be mindful of how early many abortions are. Without critical data literacy, it is easy to be misinformed about abortions. For example, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) estimates surgical abortion accounted for 89 per cent of abortions in 2020. However, the CIHI only looks at hospitals, and two in three abortions in Canada are performed at abortion clinics, which — unlike hospitals — do not have to report to the CIHI and often do not offer surgical abortions.

What do people who get abortions look like? 

In 2021, The New York Times profiled commonalities among Americans who get abortions — but what of their Canadian counterparts?

In the US, the average person who has had an abortion is a low-income mother in their late 20s. The average Canadian is someone between 18–24 years old, lives in Ontario, sought the abortion within the first 12 weeks of gestation, and is from any political background. A study by the Angus Reid Centre — a bipartisan polling organization — reports a comparatively equal rate of abortion among conservative and liberal individuals, with slightly higher rates among conservative populations at 18 per cent compared to their Liberal and New Democratic Party counterparts, who came in at 14 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

On a surprising note, teenagers demonstrate the highest use of contraception of any age, and very few of them get abortions, according to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

Understanding the timeline: Fast or slow

While having an abortion is not always difficult, that does not mean it is quick. 

Surgical procedures may take less than an hour. However, medical abortions rely on a contraction that may occur anytime in a 24–48 hour span after the pill is taken; a significantly less succinct timespan for the most popular abortion option. 

As with any doctor’s appointment, abortions take more time than the time spent in a clinician’s office, and there is the added factor of waiting and scheduling, from the first positive test to the last checkup.

According to a report by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the majority of people seeking abortions are under 30, which means many of them may be students. So what does abortion look like to a student calendar? 

Pregnancy is detectable as early as 10 days after conception, but most people do not test until after their missed period since this may yield a more accurate result; people often test anywhere from 10 days to three or four weeks at the earliest. A person would need to test as soon as the detection is possible, book an abortion appointment for the same day, and receive a short follow up — most of this is out of the patient’s control — if they wanted to complete the procedure in minimal time, and that would take at least a little over two weeks. 

But, more realistically, the timeline of many abortions would fall in the six to nine week range. For context, U of T semesters are 12–13 weeks.

How do people feel after and how to be supportive

There is no one right way to respond to an abortion. 

Some people will feel strongly, and others will see it as a routine procedure and an easy, obvious choice they do not consider central to their identity.

There is a misconception that people often do — or should — feel intensely conflicted about their abortions, but multiple studies demonstrate that relief is high and regret is low. 

In a five-year-long longitudinal analysis of post-abortion emotions, one of the most common emotions reported was relief. The researchers also noted a significant decrease in emotional intensity regarding abortions three years after the procedure. Another longitudinal study of two years published in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed that “depression decreased and self-esteem increased from preabortion to postabortion.”

There is no universally appropriate method to support someone who has received an abortion, but support is important nonetheless. Wayne Sumner, a U of T professor emeritus of bioethics who has studied the ethics of abortion since the early 1970s, told The Varsity, “We have personal obligation to support [people] — especially those to whom we’re closely connected — when they’re going through any difficult point in their lives. I don’t think abortion is any different than supporting [people] when they’ve contracted long COVID.” 

Sumner’s writings were cited in the 1988 Morgentaler Decision that decriminalized abortion in Canada

Abortions are a fact of life — and much like any other part of life, it’s always best to be prepared.