Trudeau’s feminism has been put to the test since day one of his election. Today, on the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, it’s time for the Canadian government to turn words into action.
Note: This article is also available in the French edition of Ricochet.
While this new government continues to make inroads in changing the rollback of human rights left behind by Harper — through a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, reimplementation of the long-form census, and the historic welcoming of 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country — Trudeau is slow to act on his promises to advance women’s reproductive rights, namely access to safe and legal abortion at home and abroad.
Without access to safe and legal abortion, women often turn to unsafe methods. Every minute, some 40 women around the world undergo unsafe abortion because they have little choice and for myriad reasons do not want to continue the pregnancy. Unsafe abortion is one of five leading causes of maternal mortality and is the only one that is completely preventable.
Above all, access to safe abortion care is a fundamental human right. Global human rights bodies have consistently recommended withdrawing criminal penalties against women who undergo abortions and revising laws on abortion so that unsafe and illegal abortions no longer contribute to maternal mortality and morbidity. Canada now has the opportunity to accelerate this progress.
On the home front, many Canadians face challenges in accessing abortion. Across the country, only one in six hospitals provide abortions, most of which are located in big cities within 150 km of the United States border. And while Trudeau may have played a role in what will be PEI’s first on-island abortion clinic, his government is doing little to push the envelope.
Mifepristone — the pill included in the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines — was finally approved in Canada last summer. Used to medically induce abortion, the pill has huge potential for increasing access, especially in remote areas of the country, but rules imposed by Health Canada on its use are unnecessarily restrictive and unless revised will interfere with the dignity of those seeking abortion care and impede access to these medicines.
But it’s not just about Trudeau’s role in Canada. With the renewal of the Muskoka Initiative, the government has the opportunity to significantly advance the health and rights of women and girls around the world. Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau can and must fulfil her international development mandate and close the gaps in the Muskoka Initiative with respect to reproductive rights and health.
In March 2016, Bibeau took some first steps by announcing Canada’s renewed commitment to improving sexual and reproductive health in developing countries. The government announced support for United Nations Population Fund projects amounting to $76 million with an added $5 million to be earmarked for contraceptive supplies. It was a nod toward ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, but not enough.
World Health Organization data shows that even when contraception is available an estimated 33 million contraceptive users face unintended pregnancy each year. Abortion is an integral part of reproductive health services and shouldn’t be a taboo subject. It should be part of global — and national — efforts to promote universal access to sexual and reproductive health services.
We know from Ethiopia, Nepal, and countries throughout Western Europe that when abortion is integrated with other reproductive health services such as contraception, unsafe abortions are reduced and women’s lives are saved. This benefits families, communities, and nations.
Trudeau has the opportunity to take a stand in respecting a woman’s right to choose and preventing unsafe abortion practices by including safe abortion as an integral part of health care — a historic opportunity to be a bold world leader in promoting and supporting all aspects of sexual and reproductive rights at home and abroad. As Sept. 28 comes and goes, what better time than now. Because it’s 2016.
Sandeep Prasad LLB is executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, a progressive, pro-choice charitable organization committed to advancing and upholding sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally.
Anu Kumar is the chief strategy and development officer for Ipas, a U.S.-based international non-governmental organization that works to prevent deaths and injuries from unsafe abortion, to advance women’s sexual and reproductive rights and to expand access to safe abortion care.