| Voices for choice

Reproductive rights are brought to the fore in panel discussion over two new documentaries

On Tuesday night, Canadians for Choice and the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy joined to present two groundbreaking documentaries about women’s reproductive rights.

Abortion Democracy, directed by Sarah Diehl, and The Coathanger Project, directed by Angie Young, address some shocking truths about abortion laws around the world. The screenings were accompanied by a panel discussion with the two directors and representatives from Canadians for Choice and the Centre for Gender Advocacy. The discussion was used as a forum for debate over Canadian reproductive rights and how they relate to broader international issues.

The screenings were organized partly as a response to the introduction in Parliament earlier this year of Bill C-484, which threatened to compromise women’s reproductive rights. Also known as the “Unborn Victims of Crime Act,” the private-members bill proposes to allow separate homicide charges for the death of a fetus when a pregnant woman is attacked. While the language of the bill specifically excludes abortion, the bill’s opponents argue that the legislation could be a step toward the criminalization of abortion in the future.

Reeling it in

The two documentaries, screened at Concordia, look at abortion issues from an international perspective. Abortion Democracy explores an ironic parallel between Poland and South Africa with respect to abortion law. The Coathanger Project deals with the state of the current pro-choice movement in the United States. The films reveal that cross-culturally, women face similar challenges regarding their reproductive rights.

Abortion Democracy addresses abortion rights and access issues in South Africa and Poland. Despite South Africa’s legalization of abortion in 1994, an extraordinary 60,000 to 80,000 deaths are reported per year due to complications resulting from illegal or do-it-yourself abortions. Meanwhile, Poland has gone in a different direction. In 1997 it banned abortion except in very specific cases such as rape, gross deformation of the fetus, or when the fetus poses a serious threat to the health of the mother. Yet paradoxically, today abortions remain safer and more accessible in Poland than in South Africa.

In The Coathanger Project, Angie Young looks at American society post-Roe v. Wade, examining the current generation of women who have grown up knowing legalized abortion, but have no memory of the struggles over reproductive rights that came before their time. The movie was inspired by Young’s experience in South Dakota, where she worked to defeat the absolute ban against abortion proposed by the state government in 2006. South Dakota successfully turned down that ban, but is now facing a second challenge of abortion rights. The film attempts to remind this generation of why it should not take freedom of choice for granted.

Canada’s unborn victims?

The two films illustrate the vulnerable state of Canada’s own abortion laws, and contextualize the importance of Bill C-484.

Although abortions are fully legal in Canada, there are no laws specifically addressing the right to an abortion. In 1995, Diane Marleau, the Canadian Health Minister at the time, declared that an abortion, as a “necessary medical procedure,” should be covered by every health care insurance plan in every province, regardless of whether it is performed in a free-standing clinic or a hospital. However, there remain marked differences throughout Canada’s provinces.

According to Canadians for Choice, just 17.8 per cent of Canadian hospitals provide abortion services. Prince Edward Island does not have any hospitals that do, and New Brunswick has only two. Neither province provides adequate funding for the cost of abortions, technically violating the Canada Health Act. New Brunswick, for instance, only funds abortion at hospitals and does not cover the costs at clinics.

Furthermore, as noted in the panel discussion, women from rural areas often have to travel great distances to reach a clinic or hospital that can perform the procedure, and their travel and accommodation costs are not covered by their health care plans.

The two documentaries screened Tuesday night underscore the importance of upholding the right to reproductive choice. They address not only the difficulties faced by people fighting for these rights, but also the continuing struggle of maintaining reproductive rights where they are already in place. Even here in Canada, as the appearance of Bill C-484 shows, our freedom of choice is vulnerable; although abortion is legal, the choice can be effectively denied if services are not made more accessible.

Angie Young and Sarah Diehl are currently on tour screening their two documentaries across North America. The films will be released on DVD, along with footage from various panel discussions.