As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe vs. Wade and limit abortion rights, pro-choice advocates in Canada say it is important to remain vigilant when it comes to our own access issues.
Though the anti-abortion movement here has not enjoyed the same level of success as its American counterpart, “I am not naive enough to think that what’s happening in the U.S. will never happen in Canada,” says Kelly Monaghan, a family physician and abortion provider in St. John’s, Nfld. “There is definitely a small group of politicians and Canadian citizens, many of whom are very powerful, who do have an agenda in terms of reopening this debate.”
Abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988, when our Supreme Court determined that legal restrictions on abortion were unconstitutional. Today, public support for reproductive rights is high. A 2020 poll found that 71 per cent of Canadians believe that a woman should be able to get an abortion if she decides she wants one, no matter the reason.
However, several organizations across Canada are working to roll back access. Though their attempts so far have been unsuccessful, says Joyce Arthur, the founder and executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), some groups are now trying to build support by modernizing their image.
And as the Conservative Party of Canada searches for a new leader, abortion rights are an issue in that race. Candidate Leslyn Lewis identifies as pro-life and has publicly shared her own decision not to get an abortion. Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion lobby, has endorsed Lewis and has been encouraging its supporters to donate to other pro-life candidates in the race.
‘Really, it’s just reframing their old patriarchal, sexist views.’
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the movement was more overtly religious and focused on protecting fetuses, says Arthur. Today, some have de-emphasized their religious affiliations and have adopted a pro-woman approach. “They make it sound like they’re in favour of the modern liberal framework of human rights,” says Arthur. “But really, it’s just reframing their old patriarchal, sexist views.”
Indeed, a number of anti-abortion organizations in Canada describe themselves as acting in defence of human rights and of women and children. The home page of RightNow, a group formed in 2015, reads: “Join us in electing pro-life candidates across the country to make Canada a safer place for women and children.”
We Need A Law advocates for laws protecting “preborn children.”
“At its core, this is a human-rights initiative. And human rights are for all human beings, regardless of their size, location or age. This by necessity includes babies in the womb,” Tabitha Ewert, legal counsel for We Need a Law, responded in an email. “Abortion ends the life of a human being and is often described as the hardest or worst choice a woman can make. Women deserve so much better than abortion. Governments have an obligation to pass laws that uphold human rights and promote the well-being of all Canadians.”
Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPCs) also claim to help women, says Arthur, providing counselling services and resources and sometimes even medical services such as ultrasounds but are not always transparent about their stance on abortion.
A 2016 report published by ARCC and co-written by Arthur reviewed the websites of 166 CPCs in Canada and found that 60 per cent did not include the information that they did not provide referrals for abortion or contraception. Five per cent claimed a false link between abortion and breast cancer and 9 per cent cited “other medical risks of abortion that were exaggerated or not scientifically proven.”
While some organizations are turning to new techniques to attract support, others are still using traditional protest tactics. The Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform (CCBR), for example, is well known for distributing leaflets and fliers with images of aborted fetuses.
“They’re appreciative of the fact that the reproductive justice movement has won in the courts, it’s won on the streets, it’s won in Parliament and they represent a minority viewpoint,” says Carolyn Egan, who is one of the founders of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics. “What they’re interested in is repelling people from what an abortion actually is.”
But it’s unclear if such tactics help the anti-abortion cause. The CCBR caused controversy in London, Ont., in 2020 when it distributed unsolicited graphic fliers to residents. One city councillor called the group’s tactics “tasteless and disgusting” and the city is now exploring a ban on the distribution of such materials.
Canada still suffers from a number of pressing issues around access.
Protestors are also known to target clinics directly, though legislation in some provinces aims to prevent this. Protestors would sometimes come right to the front steps of the clinic in St. John’s where Monaghan works. In 2016, the owner of the clinic took the issue to the Newfound and Labrador Supreme Court, which established a 40-metre radius around the clinic where protest was prohibited. Later that year, the province adopted the Access to Abortion Services Act, which established a safe access zone of up to 50 metres around health-care facilities that provide abortions. Similar laws are also in place in British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario.
Beyond the anti-abortion movement, Canada still suffers from a number of pressing issues around access.
In New Brunswick, for example, the province funds only abortions that take place in hospital. Currently, only three hospitals in the province offer abortion services. The cost at Clinic 554, a private abortion provider, is $700 to $850. Despite penalties handed down by the federal government, the province has declined to expand access.
Canada’s geography can also pose a problem. Until 2017, when the abortion pill Mifegymiso became publicly available, Newfoundland residents could only access abortion services in St. John’s. That proved to be a major barrier in a province the size of Ireland and Scotland combined, says Monaghan, especially for people who had to consider factors such as transportation costs, child care and work commitments.
Because pharmacies in some areas of the province do not carry the abortion pill, Monaghan and other providers have set up travelling clinics to make services more accessible. “We recognize that sometimes the lack of ability to travel to St. John’s is really the difference” in obtaining an abortion or not, she says.
And for those without legal status or a provincial health card, the out-of-pocket cost of an abortion can be steep. “For the most vulnerable, there are still very real questions because if you cannot pay to have an abortion, if you don’t have a health card, what then do you do?” asks Egan.
Monaghan, Arthur and Egan all say that it is important to remain alert and engaged, though Egan says she is heartened to see the level of support for abortion rights among young Canadians. “There are so, so many young people who are absolutely prepared to fight to maintain the gains that we won numbers of years ago.”