Monday, July 11, 2016

Maternal Deaths


I am helping a researcher who is looking for statistics on maternal death from abortions in the 1930's and 1940's. She has found some information for B.C. (from B.C. Vital Statistics), but she is interested in similar statistics for Ontario, or for Canada as a whole.

While searching the StatsCan site, I found the following notice. StatsCan has data from 1970 to 2006, and CIHI now provides access to this data:

I guess the real question is which agency (or agencies) would have data for the 1930s and 1940s. Any advice would be appreciated.

There are some digital collections of the Ontario, Office of the Registrar General – Vital Statistics made available online at the Internet Archive:

The chances of obtaining reliable figures would be somewhere in the vicinity of nil owing to the fact that abortion was prohibited until the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1968-69. You might actually be better off exploring crime statistics to see how many doctors and others were charged (one famous case being

There is a very good chapter (Chapter 2, “Abortion as Birth Control”, pp. 32-53) in the following book which outlines many of the issues influencing the availability and reliability of statistics on maternal deaths due to abortion in Canadian history. 
McLaren, Angus, and Arlene Tigar McLaren. The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1997. (2nd ed.) Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Here are two snippets of info from the book that might be useful:
“In a 1934 study of 334 maternal deaths in one year in Ontario, an important finding was unearthed. Researchers found that fifty-nine, or 17 percent of all maternal deaths, were due to abortion.” (Phair & Sellers, 1934, as cited in McLaren & McLaren, 1997, p.45)
Original research article cited:
J.T. Phair and A.H. Sellers, “A Study of Maternal Deaths in the Province of Ontario.”Canadian Public Health Journal, 25 (1934), pp. 563-79.
“It is not easy … to pin down the number of abortion deaths. How a maternal death was classified depended ultimately on the differing judgements and conflicting concerns of doctors, coroners, and magistrates. There are indications that only two of every three abortion deaths were reported by vital statistics and presumably even a lower ratio of deaths known to medical authorities may have come to the attention of legal authorities.” (p. 45)
“We have established that in the three decades between 1920 and 1950 probably close to 500 women in British Columbia died as a result of abortion-related deaths.” (p. 51)
Citing their own research article:
McLaren, Angus, and Arlene Tigar McLaren. “Discoveries and Dissimulations: The Impact of Abortion Deaths on Maternal Mortality in British Columbia.” BC Studies, 64 (1984/85), pp. 3-26. Available online from: