Since November, about the time that the Choose Life controversy blew up on campus, Conservative MP Brad Trost has been petitioning to cut government funding to the International Planned Parenthood Foundation. In a blog post this week, Jessica Yee, founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, pointed out that Trost represents Saskatachewan, a province where safe abortions and other reproduction-managing services are difficult to access in remote areas. And it’s no coincidence that these areas are largely populated with indigenous peoples: access to basic sexual health services and the tools of reproductive freedom are unequally distributed along racial and class lines.
The struggle for reproductive rights – the power to decide if, when, and how often one will get pregnant – is not just about access to abortion. It’s also a cornerstone in a larger struggle for the right of women who want to lift themselves out of poverty, for individuals to define the course of their own destiny, rather than have it be dictated by their biology within the limitations society demarcates for them based on race, sexuality, gender, ability, or class.
Yee addressed her blog post to “pro-choicers who haven’t really put anti-racism on an equal platform of your organizing, or anti-racists who think the gender and sexuality stuff should be an after-thought.”
Sexual health – safer sex and birth control – is difficult to manage in isolated, poor communities like indigenous reserves. First Nations youth have STI rates three to four times the national average. Abortion clinics in Manitoba receive no public funding. In northern Canada, largely inhabited by aboriginal people, abortion clinics are few and far between and chlamydia rates are eight times the national average. Nunavut had the highest rate of chlamydia in the nation in 2003 – 13 times the national average. As of 2006, nearly 30 per cent of new HIV-positive Canadians were aboriginal people. From education to access to birth control, indigenous women are disproportionately disenfranchised.
The March for Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that happened last Sunday is a good occasion to think about how these problems intersect, and the bigger picture they make up. Women cannot have full personhood if they cannot control their bodies. “Clearly this isn’t just about abortion or sexuality or race,” Yee writes. “It’s obvious that these guys are trumping upon our innermost self-determining rights – whether that’s the right to practice your culture or make a decision over your own body. It’s all related.”
And for women whose humanity is already denied through racial discrimination, colonial disenfranchisement, and ghettoization, denying them this control worsens the situation. We deny indigenous women that control by limiting their access to abortion as well as by demoralizing their communities with racist legislation and leaving them vulnerable to rape, kidnapping, and domestic abuse. The state’s indifference to abuse of native women is an indication that they don’t recognize their equal humanity.
We’ve had lively debate around the issue of abortion this year on campus. And while it’s good that we’re engaged in issues close to home, let’s shift focus to the issue of reproductive rights on a national scale – direct some of your energy against the MPs trying to take away access to Planned Parenthood and all the services it offers, from sex education to birth control. It’s important that we don’t focus all our energies on this campus of 30,000 people and lose sight of the broader, national context of this issue.
CORRECTION: The original text of this article indicated that Brad Trost represents Saskatoon, which was described as a province, in Parliament. Trost does indeed represent Saskatoon-Humboldt, as a part of Saskatchewan’s parliamentary delegation.