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Commentary | Fighting for abortion rights

Canada has a way to go before abortion is accessible to all

Cw: abortion, medical bodily injury

Advocates for abortion rights are concerned after it was revealed that a new abortion drug, Mifegymiso, lauded as the gold-standard for abortion drugs, will most likely not be available through provincial health insurance when it enters Canada this year. Costing around $300, the drug will therefore be accessible only to people of a certain socioeconomic standing, and will likely be unavailable outside of major urban areas. The inaccessibility of abortion has been an ongoing issue, with Canadian abortion clinics still unavailable to many, and abortion rights coming under threat in other parts of the world.

Widespread accessibility of medical abortion, such as the Mifegymiso drug, is inaccessible to the majority of Canadian public. With a high cost and no coverage under provincial medical insurance, it requires certain economic means in order to gain access to it. This issue presents a severe dichotomy between the fundamental right to medical care, and the realities of inaccessibility within the Canadian healthcare system.

Historically speaking, denying women the right to abortion procedures has had consequences on their agency, economic status, mental health, and well being. A longitudinal study conducted in October 2014 by Adancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California in San Francisco, investigated factors of women’s economic position, health, and relationship status after being denied abortions, revealing what happens to women who want abortions but are unable to get them due to restrictive regulations. The study concluded that when a woman is denied the right to abortion, she is statistically more likely to wind up unemployed, on public assistance, and below the poverty line.

Canada’s history of abortion rights has been one of both tumultuous struggle and progress. Canada is one of the very few countries in the world that has no criminal law restricting abortion. Pressure to liberalize Canada’s abortion law began in the 1960s, before which having an abortion was illegal and could result in a lifetime in prison. Support for the legalization of abortion came from medical and legal associations, alongside various feminist groups, who were growing increasingly concerned with the massive number of illegal, extremely dangerous, and often fatal, abortions that took place every year. As of 1967, there were anywhere from 35,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions taking place annuallyin Canada. That year, Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced a bill which included an amendment to section 251 of the Criminal Code that prohibited abortions. The amendments, which decriminalised contraception and allowed abortion in only the most extreme circumstances, were passed within the year.

However, it is not until January 28, 1988, that abortion was decriminalized throughout Canada, this happened following the trials of Henry Morgentaler, a doctor in Quebec who ran illegal abortion clinics in order to provide access to abortion to the people who needed it, and who was tried and acquitted for his actions multiple times. The Supreme Court of Canada declared the abortion section of the Criminal Code to be unconstitutional, infringing upon women’s rights to life and liberty, therefore violating section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

There were immediate and ongoing problems following the decriminalization bill. The only women who had relatively good access to abortion tended to be educated, middle and upper-class women who lived in big cities. In northern regions, as well as outside the major urban centres it was common for women to travel hundreds of miles to find the closest abortion provider. For the majority of women who were poor, there was virtually no access to legal abortion at all. Women had to go to extreme and desperate lengths to access abortion procedures. This widespread inaccessibility led to severe and life threatening measures such as self-induced abortion, specifically coat-hanger abortions, which often resulted in death. The hanger represents the desperation and horror of a time when, lacking all other options, women took matters into their own hands. Sadly, factors of inaccessibility such as these have resulted in the continued practice of self-induced abortions in both Canada and the U.S., as well as elsewhere around the world.

The politicization and active participation through means of protest and lobbying against restrictive government rules and regulations is key to positive change. In May, 1970, a national feminist protest took place, known as the Abortion Caravan. Women travelled over 3,000 miles from Vancouver to Ottawa, gathering numbers as they went. In Ottawa, the Abortion Caravan held two days of demonstrations. Among other forms of protest, they carried a coffin full of coat hangers, as symbols of those who had died trying to have an abortion. As a finale, around fifty women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons. and placed the coffin they had carried at the door of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The Abortion Caravan helped politicize and activate women around the country.

In the 1990’s, access to abortion improved even more through activists group such as the Canadian Alliance to Repeal the Abortion Law, who are now referred to as the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League. One example was the British Columbia Access to Abortion Services act, which made it illegal to protest outside abortion clinics and medical professionals’ houses.

The protests and the dismantling of oppressive government regulations, in order to secure a greater sense of agency and autonomy is vital to breaking down hegemonic, patriarchal regulations on accessible forms of healthcare. Despite being one of the world’s leading countries in terms of accessibility and abortion rights, Canada still struggles in maintaining a widely accessible platform for women requiring these procedures and medications. The Canadian government has a duty to guarantee abortion access to women across the country, regardless of social status, geographic location, or any other factors.

The struggle towards attaining abortion rights extends beyond a Canadian context. On October 5th, Poland’s parliament lifted its controversial proposal for a total ban on abortion. Mass protests were held throughout the city’s downtown core, with the aim of bringing awareness to the government with the intent of reversing the proposal. As it currently stands, Poland remains one of Europe’s most conservative in terms of abortion laws and accessibility. Some 100,000 people, mostly women, went on strike and marched in cities across the country to protest their further loss of reproductive rights, leading high-ranking politicians to distance themselves from the proposed law. Just three days after the strike, lawmakers voted against the new law lifting the near total ban.

The recent developments in Poland may serve as a reminder of the importance of uniting against the oppressions that result from systematic patriarchal authority. Even now, despite abortion being theoretically available to everyone, activists should be aiming to bring awareness to the realities of abortion access in Canada. Taking both Canada and Poland as examples, abortion should be an accessible and universal right to people, regardless of the cause of pregnancy or the cost of medical attention and care. This crucial right, still not fully secure anywhere in the world, is necessary to allow for progress towards equity and justice.


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