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February 1, 2013

25 years after Morgentaler, struggle continues to defend and expand the reproductive rights of women

This article is the first part in a series we are running on Rebel Youth in preparation for International Women's Day on March 8th.

In the same week as women and men celebrate the 25th anniversary of the historic Morgentaler decision which decriminalized abortion in Canada, a group of right-wing Harper Conservative MPs want to push women's reproductive rights back into the dark ages.

The latest attempt to attack abortion rights has come from three Tory MPs: Maurice Vellacott of Saskatoon-Wanuskwein in Saskatchewan, Leon Benoit of Vegreville-Wainwright in Alberta and Wladyslaw Lizon of Mississauga East-Cooksville in Ontario.

In their letter (addressed to the RCMP Commissioner on House of Commons letterhead) the MP's demand the RCMP launch a "national investigation" into abortions after 19 weeks gestation calling them "possible murders."  


"From 2000 to 2009 in Canada, there were 491 abortions, of 20 weeks gestation and greater that resulted in live births," reads the letter dated Jan. 23. "This means that the aborted child died after it was born," the letter says.

Although they have had several months to fact-check these claims, the MPs instead choose to site a Christian fundamentalist blogger Patricia Maloney (who also runs the "Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe" blog). The stats, however, result from a peculiar reporting anomaly in the Canadian Vital Statistics Programme, not actual live-born fetuses which modern abortion providers use techniques to ensure never happens.  

According to the Criminal Code, a child is a human being when it emerges completely from the womb.

Tory strategy to attack women

Women's rights, pro-choice and other feminist activists are calling the letter just another nasty attempt to bully women who are considering, or have had, an abortion and re-open the Parliamentary debate on this issue. The opposition NDP also highlighted the contradiction between the Prime Minister officially denouncing the motion from the floor but in practice continuing to allow members of his ultra-right party to re-open the discussion on the question.

In Ontario, Tim Hudak, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, has also vowed that the Ontario Tories would re-open the abortion debate if elected.

Last fall, many Canadians were shocked and alarmed when Rona Ambrose, Minister for Status of Women, voted in support of the anti-choice Motion 312 claiming that she wished to "raise concern about discrimination by sex-selection abortion." 

The failed motion found strong supporters in the majority of the Conservative caucus -- including 10 cabinet ministers and long-time anti-choice activist Jason Kenney, according to Anjali Kulkarni, Melissa Graham and Jesse McLaren in Rabble. ca. Their article, "Sexism, ableism and other anti-choice claims" notes that Motion 312 acted as a "launch pad" for another anti-choice attack -- Motion 408 which calls on "the House [to] condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination."

While the petition supporting the motion claims "millions of girls have been lost through sex-selective abortion" and Parliament must "condemn this worst form of discrimination against females," the reality is very different, the campaigners write, siting research that shows sex-selective abortions account for less than 0.035 per cent of abortions in Canada.  

"Bad science aside, the purpose of this motion is inherently racist in nature and seeks to racially stereotype Indian communities in Canada and stigmatize them," they note.

"[W]omen must be at the center of their own decision [about reproductive rights and control of their bodies]," Alexa Conradi for Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) wrote in Le Devoir about the Tory motion and sex-selective abortion. 

"We promote the empowerment of women and the fight against systems of oppression. When there is tension between the two, it is important not to introduce new forms of social control that women lose control over their lives and their bodies. It is important to trust the judgment of women how to deal with prejudice and discrimination they face. Fighting sexism with sexism is not progress."

The FFQ makes the case that women and girls do not need such protection, they need a society with full equality.

25 years after Morgentaler victory

The renewed attacks on abortion come a quarter of a century after the important legal break-through with the Supreme court ruling on the Morgentaler victory. A special website to celebrate that history in English-speaking Canada and Quebec can be found here.

Honoring the anniversary of the decision, Anand Grover, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Health wrote that "States are required to respect the right to health of women by not interfering with their right to autonomy and right to privacy and dignity all of which are critical to the right to sexual and reproductive health."

"The right to health also mandates States to ensure that quality health facilities, goods and services are available and accessible to all, without discrimination. This requires the removal of economic, physical and legal barriers to healthcare services, including for abortion. Criminalization is an impediment to the successful realization of the right to health of women and exposes them to the risks associated with unsafe and illegal abortions."

The UN Special Rapporteur's words have been applauded by the women's movement which is commemorating a hard struggle to win the legal right to choice.

"Before Jan. 28, 1988, abortion was permitted only in very limited circumstances. Hospitals with Therapeutic Abortion Committees could approve and provide abortion care only in cases of life or health endangerment."   Viki Sappora, of the National Abortion Federation of Canada wrote recently in the Vancouver Sun.

"In order to obtain a legal abortion, women were forced to face an intimidating process of going before a hospital committee to petition for care. [...] It is estimated during this time that 35,000 to 120,000 illegal abortions took place each year. And we may never know the actual number of women who sacrificed their lives and health through back alley or self-induced abortions," she added.

Today, the benefits decriminalizing abortion are clear: doctors and women handle abortion care responsibly; abortion rates are actually fairly low and have steadily declined since 1997; almost all abortions occur early in pregnancy; maternal deaths and complications from abortion are very low; abortion care is fully funded and integrated into the healthcare system (improving accessibility and safety); further legal precedents have advanced women's equality by affirming an unrestricted right to abortion; and public support for abortion rights has increased. You can read a more detailed outline here.

Abortion won through struggle which continues

The victory of women's reproductive rights was, Sappora recounts, won through hard struggle:

In 1970, 18 years before abortion was removed from the Criminal Code, the Vancouver Women's Caucus organized the first national feminist protest to liberalize the abortion law. The Abortion Caravan, as they were called, travelled more than 4,828 kilometres from Vancouver to Ottawa, where 500 women demonstrated for two days demanding legal access to abortion. And 30 women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons, closing Parliament for the first time in Canadian history. This relatively small group of women stood up and demanded that all women have equal access to abortion care. These 30 women gave a voice to Canadian women who were unable to legally obtain the abortion care they needed.

The struggle, however, continues. According Karen McVeigh writing in the British newspaper The Guardian "Hundreds of women have been arrested, convicted, jailed, detained in mental institutions or forced to endure medical procedures as a result of the “criminalisation of pregnancy” over the last four decades [in the US] including "413 criminal and civil cases across 44 states involving the arrests, detentions and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s liberty between 1973 and 2005 [and] a further 250 cases since 2005."

(Most women who get abortions in the US are young and already have children, a new series of infographics illustrates).

Likewise, The Tyee reports that "in Canada and the U.S. combined there have been eight murders of abortion providers since 1997, 17 attempted murders, 41 clinic bombings and 175 clinics torched by arsonists. For the same time period, the organization reports 1400 acts of clinic vandalism, 179 assaults against clinic staff and clients and 763 clinic blockades."

Other harassment takes place on campuses and in communities. Progressive student groups have fought to circumvent anti-abortion groups at universities, which intimidate students with stunts like handing out plastic fetuses, or displaying large pictures of babies to invoke shame in young women. The issues has often become a key battle-ground topic for the right wing -- who call the issue a matter of free speech.

The same claim was heard in Abbortsford, BC, this month when the mayor of that town refused to ask for the removal of a 'Cemetery of the Innocent' on a farmers field. The field contains hundreds of small white crosses symbolizing abortions.

In addition to such intimidation, women also find difficulties in accessing abortion in Canada. As Rebel Youth reported last year, while women in rural and remote areas are particularly disadvantaged, overall the number of abortion providers and provision of the services in hospitals is slightly dropping in Canada.

And in PEI abortions are in a legal grey area -- not permitted in practice and provincial law. A 1988 resolution passed just after Morgentaler in the PEI legislature is the province's last word on the subject and says ""life begins at conception, and any policy that permits abortion is unacceptable."  PEI women's groups chose the anniversary of the Morgentaler decision to stage a series of protests of the policy.

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