By Joyce Arthur and Carolyn Egan, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
During January’s federal election campaign, Stephen Harper promised not to legislate on abortion. Unfortunately, this has not deterred the anti-abortion movement, certain Members of Parliament, or some media commentators. Since Harper became Prime Minister, at least six major newspapers across Canada have published editorials or op-eds calling for a new abortion law in Canada. In May, thousands of anti-abortionists and over a dozen MPs staged a demonstration on Parliament Hill calling for the abortion issue to be re-opened so they could pass restrictions against abortion. Two bills have been introduced since then by anti-abortion MPs: a “fetal homicide” bill that would have opened the door to banning abortion by bestowing legal personhood on fetuses (the bill was tossed out as unconstitutional in May), and a bill to criminalize women’s healthcare by banning abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Let’s be clear. There is absolutely no justification for regulating abortion via criminal or civil law. That is no ‘radical feminist’ proposition, but one based on evidence, common sense, and the widely accepted belief that women deserve equality.
As the only democratic country in the world with no legal restrictions against abortion, Canada serves as a valuable model for other countries. In the eighteen years since the Supreme Court declared our abortion law unconstitutional, we’ve shown that a lack of laws actually leads to earlier and safer abortions. In Canada, about 90 percent of abortions are done by 12 weeks, and about 97 percent by 16 weeks, a better record than in the U.S., where numerous legal restrictions serve mainly to delay abortions and increase the medical risk. Moreover, Canadian women have almost one-third fewer abortions than American women, and at rates comparable to countries in western Europe. Canada also enjoys one of the lowest maternal mortality and complication rates for abortion in the world.
Abortion restrictions in other liberal countries are holdovers from the days of criminal abortion, or recent products of religious ideology. Such laws do nothing to reduce abortions and have many negative consequences. They institutionalize the stigma of abortion and foster prejudice against women who need one. They marginalize abortion outside the healthcare system and remove medical discretion from doctors, giving it to lawmakers instead. Physicians should never work under the threat of criminal prosecution simply for providing medical care.
Anti-abortionists frequently say that because Canada has no laws against abortion, women are having them right up to the point of delivery. That is pure poppycock. In Canada, less than 0.4 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks gestation, almost all because of serious fetal or maternal health problems. Only a handful of providers in Canada are trained and willing to do such procedures.
Abortion care already reflects what most Canadians are comfortable with. Women and doctors already act in a timely and responsible manner. It would be absurd to pass a law prohibiting something that isn’t even happening, based on the urban myth of “casual” late-term abortions. Abortion care is adequately monitored through the provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, the same as any other healthcare. No other healthcare treatment is regulated by criminal law. Abortion should not be singled out.
Do we really want a law based on the patronizing assumption that women are foolish and doctors are negligent?
There’s another important reason we should not pass any abortion restrictions ‘to protect women’s rights’. Only women get pregnant. Therefore, any regulation of pregnancy is inherently discriminatory, because such laws place a special burden on women that is not placed on men. This also means all abortion care should be fully funded under the Canada Health Act as “medically required,” just like childbirth. After all, we fund the costs of delivery even though women choose to get pregnant for socio-economic reasons, not medical reasons. Unless all pregnancy outcomes are funded equally, the government holds the “right to choose” instead of women-poor women in particular. That’s discrimination, and a violation of women’s constitutional equality rights.
Most Canadians believe abortion is a settled issue. But the emboldened demands of anti-abortionists show otherwise, as does the January election that sent 100 anti-abortion MP’s to Parliament, 78 of them Conservative. The pro-choice movement is closely monitoring the actions and policies of this government, and we will act to prevent any incursions on women’s reproductive rights in Canada.
Let’s not forget the lesson from 1990, when the last Conservative government in Canada tried to bring in a new abortion law. Although the bill was finally defeated, the acrimonious political battle over it undoubtedly played a role in the landslide defeat of the Conservatives in the next election. During that time, the pro-choice movement across Canada enjoyed record levels of support and activism because of its successful “No New Law!” campaign. If it becomes necessary, we won’t hesitate to hit the streets for an encore.
Joyce Arthur and Carolyn Egan are national spokespersons for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada / Coalition pour le Droit à l’Avortement au Canada.
National Post, March 27, Montreal Gazette, Feb 1 (approx), Ottawa Citizen, Feb 1, Calgary Herald, March 1, Jan 26, Jan 31, Vancouver Sun,Feb 3, Windsor Star, Apr 4
Demonstrators urge Tories to reopen abortion issue, but MPs say unlikely soon, Canadian Press, May 11, 2006.
MP unveils fetal homicide bill, Toronto Star, May 22, 2006.
Bill C-338, ‘An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (procuring amiscarriage after 20 weeks of gestation),’ by Liberal MP Paul Steckle, June 21, 2006.