Our Bodies

Reproductive freedom cannot be taken for granted

The global fight for access to abortion includes Canada
Photo: Beth

Among Donald Trump’s recent comments, made during a Republican presidential campaign that has increasingly started resembling a circus sideshow, was the deeply worrisome declaration that “women should be punished for getting an abortion if the practice were illegal.”

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The Republican frontrunner has been known to hold opposing views on a number of issues, and constantly backpedals and contradicts himself, so it’s sometimes hard to decipher what he actually believes in. But the mere suggestion that having an abortion should be punished prompted a major outcry, along with an uncomfortable attempt to disassociate from him, even by some pro-lifers who prefer to focus on punishing those who carry out abortions and not those who have them.

While the outcry was justified, it’s dangerously misleading to pretend that Trump’s comments are so far-fetched and ludicrous they wouldn’t survive a minute under intense scrutiny. The truth paints a different picture.

Trump’s main opponent, Ted Cruz, is actually a much scarier prospect for women. He supports criminalizing abortion, and defunding and prosecuting Planned Parenthood, while fully supporting companies that refuse to insure birth control.

In the meantime, Indiana Governor Mike Pence quietly just signed House Bill 1337 into law, a piece of legislation considered so extreme, intrusive, and cruel by some Republicans that they would not sign it. In essence, it prohibits women from seeking an abortion even if they discover their fetus has genetic abnormalities.

Across the Atlantic, a few days ago, a 21-year-old woman in Northern Ireland was found guilty of having an abortion and given a three-month sentence under antiquated laws that haven’t changed since Queen Victoria approved them. Since the then-19-year-old wasn’t able to leave the country and get an abortion in England (which is what more financially privileged Irish women do), she was left with no other choice but to purchase abortion pills online and perform a DIY abortion at home. The police became involved after her roommates called them.

The biggest threat to reproductive freedoms today is the lie that they are no longer at risk.

Even though the country’s abortion ban breaches international human rights law, it hasn’t stopped the government from treating women seeking the right to their own reproductive choices as common criminals. A few countries over, women in Poland recently held a protest to denounce the country’s restrictive laws. The Polish government limits abortions to pregnancies stemming from rape or incest and cases where the mother’s or the baby’s health is at serious risk. While debate about these limits has recently reopened, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo supports a total ban on abortion, in accordance with the Catholic Church.

The biggest threat to reproductive freedoms today is the lie that they are no longer at risk. Numerous cases in so-called “civilized” and advanced Western countries point to the fact that legislative gains are constantly being challenged or undermined.

When anti-abortionists can’t use the law to criminalize abortion, they often resort to making it practically inaccessible.

In Canada we may have a tendency to think that abortion rights are non-negotiable, but a quick look back (not even that far back) will remind us that women in this country were dying from botched abortions, using coat hangers and pumping Lysol into their wombs, less than 20 years ago, while legislators were debating (as they do now) the finer points of what constitutes freedom to choose. Abortion was decriminalized in Canada a mere 28 years ago.

When anti-abortionists can’t use the law to criminalize abortion, they often resort to making it practically inaccessible. Such is the case in more than 20 American states where impossible architectural demands and staffing standards, in addition other strict, similarly unnecessary "safety" requirements, known as TRAP laws — targeted regulations of abortion providers — have been imposed on abortion clinics. The result has been a dramatic decrease in patient access to clinics that perform legal abortions.

Access has also been an issue in Canada. While a Supreme Court ruling in 1988 said the government can’t impede an individual’s access to an abortion, there’s never been a law explicitly requiring it to be made accessible. As a result, Prince Edward Island residents have never had access to on-island abortion services, forcing them to travel to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia for the procedure. Faced with a lawsuit by Abortion Access Now PEI, the provincial government finally announced a reversal in policy.

Qualitative studies have clearly pointed to the dangers of women not having access to out-of-province abortions in PEI, and many resorted to potentially lethal DYI procedures involving alcohol and drugs over the years.

Although the situation seems to have been remedied in PEI, thanks to the tireless work of advocates, in rural Canada people continue to face access issues, often travelling thousands of kilometres and spending thousands of dollars of their own money to access reproductive services, something most Canadians think is their fundamental right. Just because we’re faring better than our neighbours to the south doesn’t mean we should ignore the glaring deficiencies in our own system.

Reproductive rights are not a given anywhere in the world, no matter how much better Canadian legislation may be in comparison to that in other countries. Constant and relentless efforts to backtrack any gains show clearly that we need to remain vigilant and informed.

Women have worked too hard and too long for the right to control our own decisions about our own bodies to allow complacency to roll back those rights.

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