Magazine article Herizons

Bagshaw Risked Arrest to Help Women

Magazine article Herizons

Bagshaw Risked Arrest to Help Women

Article excerpt

A pioneer in reproductive health, Elizabeth Bagshaw was the medical director of Canada's first birth control clinic, in Hamilton, Ontario.

Born in 1881 in Cannington, Ontario, Bagshaw enrolled at the Ontario Medical College for Women in 1901. She began practising medicine in Hamilton in 1906, a time when few women were admitted. A family physician with a thriving obstetrics practice, Bagshaw saw first-hand the effects of poverty on urban families. She became convinced that the ability of women to limit the size of their families was essential to their overall health and welfare.

It was during the Depression, in 1932, that community activist Mary Hawkins recruited Bagshaw to become director of Hamilton's Birth Control Society Clinic. At the time, Section 179 of the Criminal Code of Canada stipulated: "Everyone is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to two years' imprisonment who knowingly, without lawful excuse or justification, offers to sell, advertises, publishes an advertisement of or has for sale or disposal any medicine, drug or article intended or represented as means of preventing conception or causing abortion." In contravention of the law, Bagshaw provided contraceptives to the poor and to others in need, including recent immigrants.

In a 1978 National Film Board documentary, Doctor Woman: The Ufe and times of Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, the doctor recalls how the bishop of Hamilton had denounced the clinic in his sermons. Bagshaw warned the clinic's nurses that, when this happened, they should be sure to be on time on Monday morning as greater numbers of Catholic women would come seeking birth control. "It was the best advertising we had!" Bagshaw said.

Then, in 1936, Dorothea Palmer, a nurse with the Parents' Information Bureau, an agency that provided contraceptives to the poor, was charged under Section 179 of the Criminal Code. …

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