Tensions between experts and elected officials have hindered Canada’s response to COVID-19, exacerbating inequities and eroding confidence in our democratic institutions. The persistent disconnect between those with on-the-ground knowledge and policy-makers is having dire consequences – most often for communities that are already at a disadvantage. Currently, we are witnessing this dynamic play out with respect to the pandemic but it is relevant in other contexts, perpetuating inequality and putting our democracy at risk.
Thankfully, Bill C-233, a private member’s bill that misuses epidemiological research to justify restrictions on reproductive rights, was defeated in the House of Commons June 2. The bill is an example of research being misused to further agendas. It aimed to amend the Criminal Code “to make it an offence for a medical practitioner to perform an abortion knowing that the abortion is sought solely on the grounds of the child’s genetic sex.” Had Bill C-233 been passed, it would have affected all individuals seeking an abortion in Canada.
The bill drew on research that identified son-biased sex ratios among second-generation South Asian mothers in Ontario with two previous daughters and at least one abortion between the second and third birth. The research found that complex factors such as cultural traditions, financial pressures, experiences of racism and immigration policy contribute to sex-selective abortion, which is an extreme form of son preference.
While son preference is common in a wide range of South Asian communities and other cultures, connection to community partners enabled researchers to engage with members of the Punjabi community in Brampton, Ont., and Etobicoke, Ont. Drawing on local knowledge and partnering with organizations such as Punjabi Community Health Services, South Asian Women’s Centre and Laadliyan, Celebrating & Empowering Daughters, researchers revealed a bigger, more nuanced picture well beyond what is often framed as simply a racialized woman’s problem. That input guided the development of an English, Punjabi and Hindi language resource that addresses misconceptions about sex-selective abortion. The resource has been incorporated into existing community-based programs, enhancing culturally appropriate efforts to elevate the status of women and girls.
Bill C-233 selectively misused findings from this research and failed to acknowledge the ample evidence that has found such bans to be ineffective. In fact, such restrictions disproportionately harm women, particularly racialized women, by straining the patient-provider relationship and forcing potentially unsafe abortion by other means or elsewhere.
The research that Bill C-233 relied on is the product of a rare partnership between epidemiologists and community organizations. The collaboration built trust with community members and did the hard work of developing a rich understanding of a complex social phenomenon. The importance of this multidisciplinary approach cannot be understated. The participation of community members in research helps fill critical gaps and enables the creation of community-driven recommendations that are more likely to have a sustained impact.
An additional strength of the research that Bill C-233 misinterpreted is that it was carried out by a team with access to two worlds. (Full disclosure: Susitha Wanigaratne, a co-author of this article, led this team). Team members could understand their parents’ immigrant experiences while navigating institutions that shape our society. That hard-won representation makes the insights, knowledge and trust that flow throughout the research that much more precious. When community members see their contributions used against them, they will be less likely to participate in future studies, severely restricting further multidisciplinary efforts that could effectively address inequities. Misusing carefully cultivated evidence, such as in Bill C-233, exacerbates the distrust that minoritized communities have of institutions.
It is easy to dismiss the regressive agenda of Bill C-233. However, as the pandemic and global events are demonstrating, this is not the time for false comfort. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on women – they have been driven out of the workforce, are overloaded with caregiving responsibilities and have few structural supports available to them. All of this is much worse for racialized women. Adding the possibility of restricted reproductive rights would further entrench gendered inequality in our society, constraining our economic recovery and drastically reducing women’s representation in our democracy.
As regions across Canada contend with lockdowns that deepen disparities, we must ask ourselves: What comes next? This crisis can be seized to secure new post-pandemic norms around how science and minoritized communities can not only shape but drive policy. This is an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to facts and evidence, to establish a higher standard for accountability and representation in our institutions, all of which are key to addressing the existing inequalities that the pandemic has magnified.
Complacent responses to Bill C-233 and similar instances that co-opt evidence in policy pave the way for further division in our society. They increase the likelihood of civic alienation tied to the spread of misinformation. These factors increase COVID-19 risk and jeopardize vaccination efforts. Truly building back better will require active engagement of scientific and community-based expertise in the work of elected officials.
The pandemic has shown us the perils of the status quo. The misuse of evidence is everyone’s problem.