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Abortion: What's the provincial reality?

A brief lesson in the history, reasoning, and unconstitutionality of abortion access in N.B.

by Beth Lyons

(First published on HereNB.com, Feb 14, 2008)

Debate has been stirred recently by a billboard featuring the profile of a woman tenderly cradling her very pregnant belly along with the text: "9 months. The length of time an abortion is allowed in Canada. Abortion. Have we gone too far?" Prominently featured in Moncton and rejected by Fredericton, this billboard has raised issues of tastefulness, free speech, and private control of publicly viewed spaces. Rather than address these issues, however, I would like to speak to the question posed.

The billboard, which is featured across Canada, implies that abortions are easily available up until the moment of delivery. In actuality, 90 per cent of Canadian abortions occur within the first trimester and late term abortions are rare, difficult to procure and primarily done only in cases of medical emergency.

In N.B, however, obtaining an abortion at any point in a pregnancy is difficult as the province has the most prohibitive abortion access in the country after P.E.I., where abortions are completely unavailable.

Technically, it's true that there are no legal limitations on abortion. In 1988, the Supreme Court affirmed women's bodily autonomy and established the legality of abortions as part of women's constitutional right to security: "Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus a violation of her security of the person."

This entrenches reproductive self-determination for women. To make this right meaningful, the Canada Health Act dictates that abortions be available and paid for by Medicare -- after all, legality without accessibility is lip service.

The N.B. government understands the importance of access -- it's from this angle that women's rights have been curtailed for almost two decades. In 1989, the provincial government implemented a regulation stating that to obtain a publicly funded abortion two doctors must deem the procedure medically necessary and it must be performed in a hospital by a gynecologist. These requirements are unconstitutional and, as a provincial regulation, have also never been subject to a vote. Additionally, only two physicians in undisclosed N.B. hospitals perform abortions.

For those who can't get the necessary referrals, the alternative is the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, which provides abortions up to the 16th week for $550-750. However, the N.B. government refuses to foot the bill, while all other provinces cover part or all of the cost of clinic abortions. In response to this situation, N.B.'s government is being sued by longtime reproductive rights advocate and clinic founder Dr. Henry Morgentaler. The Crown is arguing that as Morgentaler is a man, he has no legal standing in a case concerning women's reproductive rights (considering that the government itself is an overwhelmingly male entity, by their own logic they should also have no say in limiting women's reproductive rights). To date, no decision has been made on whether the court will agree to hear the case.

The reality is both the hospital and Morgentaler Clinic aren't options for many women seeking timely, affordable access to abortions. Inaccessible abortion services do not mean women aren't terminating pregnancies; they're just forced to do it unsafely. Poor access doesn't merely traumatize and disenfranchise women -- it kills them.

Kill. That word is what's at the centre of this debate, isn't it? We wrestle with whether aborting a fetus is killing a person. Many argue yes, and therefore women's reproductive rights exist within the realm of deciding to have sex and use contraception, no further. That's the reductive voice of privilege speaking; women's choices are rarely so clear. We live in a culture where sex is currency, relationships can be abusive, many basic health insurance options cover viagra but not birth control, sex education is really abstinence indoctrination, rapes are perpetrated, and so on. Women become pregnant in tragic circumstances and in mundane ones; either way, the subsequent decisions to be made are private.

That is what the debate is: not deciding when life begins, but allowing every woman to answer that question for herself. It is a question of allowing women the basic human right of self-determination. The restrictive access regulation is evidence of a paternalistic attitude that says women don't have the capacity to make decisions for themselves, presumes women wouldn't take the decision seriously if not forced to, and implies that women don't understand the gravity of their reproductive capacity. It's frightening that our government is uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, but is at ease with forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. And that's the danger the Supreme Court recognized and protects women against by giving us the right to choose; too bad N.B. misogyny trumps the Supreme Court.

So, the billboard offends me. Not because of its anti-choice rhetoric, but because it's misleading in its facts.

Because it tries to sound understanding, implying that abortions could be reasonable if they only occurred earlier in pregnancy (a moral paradox, if I've ever encountered one). Because it pretends to be asking a question while sending a clear emotional cue by pasting the "abortion" over a full-term belly. But mostly it offends me by addressing communities in an insultingly paternalistic, manipulative and misleading manner -- just like our provincial access regulation addresses N.B.'s women.