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Women’s Rights Are Not Up for Debate

January 2009

(Slightly shorter version published in the
Winnipeg Free Press February 4, 2009)

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC)

Much has been written lately by Canada’s anti-abortion community about the supposed need to reopen the abortion debate. Anti-abortionists seem offended by the claim that the debate is closed, with the issue settled by the Supreme Court in 1988. Equitable access to legal abortion has been deemed fundamental to women’s right to life, liberty, conscience, and bodily integrity. And women’s rights are not up for debate.

The main cheerleader for re-opening the debate is Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge, newly appointed chair of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus. Bruinooge went public in December with his plans for a “new era” of advocacy for the “rights of the unborn.” He said: “I believe that having open debate on important topics like this is essential for any democratic movement.”

The word “debate” is being used as a cover for the desire to pass anti-abortion laws. The main purpose of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus is to lobby for legal restrictions, a goal that clashes directly with every major party’s policy on abortion. The Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus has been around for about a dozen years. It’s surely no coincidence that from 1996 to 2008, at least 15 anti-abortion bills and motions have been introduced by Reform, Conservative, or Liberal MPs. All of them failed. (See Sidebar below for more info on the PPLC and Harper's "hidden agenda".)

Despite their lack of legislative success, nothing has ever stopped anti-choice people from speaking their minds publicly. That debate has always been open and will never close. Canada’s major newspapers feature regular commentary from a stable of anti-choice columnists and op-ed writers, including Margaret Somerville, Father Raymond J. De Souza, Jonathan Kay, Barbara Kay, Claire Hoy, David Warren, and others. Anti-abortion letters are published almost daily in papers and on news websites across the nation – in numbers that generally outweigh pro-choice letters by at least a 2 to 1 margin. Canadian bloggers writing about abortion often do so from an anti-choice perspective, and almost any pro-choice blog about abortion gets overrun by anti-choice comments – many of them intimidating and hateful towards pro-choice bloggers.

However, the apparent strength and numbers of the cyberspace anti-choice community are in direct disproportion to the real world. To illustrate, a wish to “Abolish Abortion” was the winner of CBC’s 2007 Great Canadian Wish Contest held on Facebook, but an Angus Reid poll (June 2008) found that only 5% of Canadians want to make abortion illegal in all circumstances.

It’s true that many Canadians have said they want some restrictions on abortion. The same poll cited above found that while 49 per cent of respondents want abortion legal in all cases, 42 per cent would allow abortion only under certain circumstances. For most of that demographic, this means laws against later abortions. However, medical procedures are governed by policy, not criminal law. Doctors already adhere to a Canadian Medical Association policy that permits abortion after 20 weeks only “under exceptional circumstances.” Less than 0.4 percent of abortions occur after this point, all for compelling reasons such as serious fetal anomalies or life-threatening maternal health problems. This means that current abortion practice already matches the preferences of the vast majority of Canadians.

Such facts have never stopped the anti-choice movement from spreading misinformation. An anti-choice group called Signal Hill just released the results of their own Angus-Reid poll, which found that 92 per cent of respondents did not know that “abortion is permitted at any time from conception up to the moment of birth.” Of course, it’s not possible to “know” something that’s not true, so this poll is a classic case of Garbage in, Garbage out. The poll also found that 95 per cent of respondents want women to be informed about all options, and of the side effects of abortion. Since informed consent is already a required and routine part of delivering abortion care, that’s like asking people whether publicly-funded hospitals should be required to provide healthcare.

While complaining about a lack of abortion laws in Canada, anti-choice columnist Claire Hoy says that a “favorite tactic of the pro-abortion crowd is to accuse anyone who even questions our current lack of abortion governance as favoring ‘forcing’ women to carry babies to term.” Hoy says we’re wrong because only a tiny minority of Canadians believe abortion should be completely illegal. What Hoy overlooks however, is that the only purpose of any anti-abortion restriction – even a seemingly minor one – is to reduce abortion by making it harder to access. If even one woman fails to obtain a desired abortion because of an anti-abortion restriction, she is being forced to carry a baby to term. Under Canada’s constitution, that is a violation of her right to life, liberty, conscience, and bodily integrity.

Canada has done very well without an abortion law of any kind. (This article explains why.) Our abortion rates are low compared to most other countries in the world, and have been declining steadily since 1999. In other countries, criminal laws against abortion do nothing to reduce it. The main effect of anti-abortion laws is to kill and injure women in large numbers because they resort to unsafe abortion. Anyone who wants to restrict abortion implicitly wants to make it unsafe and endanger women’s lives.

We’re well past debating whether pregnant women are entitled to the same human rights as the rest of us. The Supreme Court has ruled several times that they are, which is why fetuses cannot hold competing rights. Instead, let’s address the serious problems faced by women trying to access abortion care.

Women living in rural or conservative areas, including the Maritimes, continue to have poor access to abortion care. Less than 20 per cent of hospitals in Canada offer accessible abortion services. Few medical schools offer any training in abortion, even though it is one of the most common of all healthcare procedures. In New Brunswick, many women are forced to pay for their own abortions, in violation of the Canada Health Act. Finally, the ongoing stigma of abortion casts a pall over the entire reproductive health field, creating a chill amongst providers, and unnecessary shame for women who need abortions.

With a large pro-choice majority in this country, Canada has a strong mandate to fix these inequities for women, once and for all. Then maybe the “debate” will finally be over.


The PPLC and Harper's "hidden agenda"

The Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus prides itself on keeping its membership “secret” to shield its renegade members from the wrath of party leaders. (However, a 2004 article about the PPLC names 4 Senators and 46 MPs as members, and estimates a total membership of about 70.) Although Bruinooge claims that the caucus has “supporters” from every party, all known and suspected members are Conservatives, with a few Liberals. There is zero evidence that any NDP or Bloc politicians have ever been members. Even if that were so, the views of any anti-choice NDP or Bloc politician would have no influence within their respective parties. However, a sympathetic writer once said of PPLC caucus members: “Whether or not they are themselves pro-life, they know enough to inform themselves of an issue that occupies the thinking of a fair number of their constituents.” We hope this means that one or two Bloc or NDP members are indeed present to keep tabs on the caucus and surreptitiously take notes!

The history and longevity of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus also exposes Stephen Harper’s legendary “hidden agenda.” Harper does indeed want to restrict abortion by law – if he thought he could get away with it. You see, Harper himself used to be a member of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus – as recently as 2004. This was two years after he became Leader of the Opposition, and less than two years before becoming Prime Minister. So his vows during election campaigns not to legislate on abortion or re-open the debate are manipulative and pragmatic – compromises he had to make in order to get elected in a socially liberal country.

Indeed, neither Harper nor his Party has any intention of letting go of their strong anti-abortion roots, which often shine through. At the Conservative Party convention last fall in Winnipeg, party delegates passed Resolution P-207, “Protecting Pregnant Women”, which calls for a re-introduction of last year’s failed Bill C-484, the “Unborn Victims of Crime Act.” This bill would create legal personhood for fetuses by making it a separate offence to harm or kill a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman. Harper himself voted for Bill C-484 last year, and he would allow free votes on other abortion-related private members’ bills. Harper’s promise not to legislate on abortion therefore means nothing, because a private member’s bill can become law if a majority of voting MP’s are anti-choice. Currently, 39% of all MPs have a public anti-choice record, but 21% have an unknown stance. (68% of the Conservative caucus is anti-choice.)