Why the right to reproductive choice cannot be taken for granted

This last week has provided a study of contrasting approaches to abortion in Canada and the United States. In the south, potential Republican nominee for President Donald Trump suggested that women who seek abortions should be punished. While he later claimed that he misspoke, his opponents Ted Cruz and John Kaisch are both firmly anti-choice and have committed to restricting the legal right to abortion in the US. In fact, plenty of women who seek abortions are already punished by anti-choice state legislators who force women to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds, repeated doctors' visits, and financial hardship when they have to travel long distances to seek abortion care and costs of travel, lodging, childcare, missed work, and, often, the cost of the medical procedure.

As many states, including recent examples in Texas, Utah, and Indiana, make legal abortions harder to obtain, American women are turning to the Internet and home remedies to self-abort. A University of Texas study found that over 100,000 women had performed self-abortions due to the closure of nearly half of Texas's abortion clinics. Women who self-abort, and their friends who help them, continue to be charged with murder, including a recent case of a Tennessee woman charged with first degree murder in November 2015 after a failed self-abortion as well as an Indiana woman who was sentenced to 20 years in jail after she miscarried and hid the remains from her conservative parents. Abortion has existed for hundreds of years in North America, and 30% of North American women have an abortion over her lifetime.  When abortion access is reduced, women can no longer access safe abortions.  Donald Trump is reiterating what is known too well: American women are continually punished for seeking abortions.

Conversely, pro-choice Canadians celebrated the news that PEI would finally comply with the Canada Health Act and provide abortion services.  Prime Minister Trudeau celebrated the news on Twitter, writing “A woman's right to choose is fundamental in Canada.”  American progressives, already enamoured of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, highlighted the contrast and asked, “Is Canada trolling us?”

While these steps are important, pro-choice Canadians should not become too complacent.  After all, the leader of the official opposition voted to reopen the debate over personhood in 2012 when she was the Minister responsible for the Status of Women.  The Harper government bestowed Diamond Jubilee medals on two women convicted of harassing abortion clinic workers and patients in 2012.  Patrick Brown, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, has opposed Ontario's new sexual education curriculum as well as trans rights, and his legislative history on social issues has resulted in his endorsement by anti-choice organizations.  While progressives celebrate the new Liberal government, we are well aware that Conservative governments have a history of questioning reproductive choices.

In addition, abortion access in Canada is largely limited to urban areas.  Only 16% of Canadian hospitals offer abortions, and the majority are in southern Canada, within 150 km of the American border.  What this means in practice is that all Albertan women seeking surgical abortions must travel to Calgary or Edmonton.  In Ontario, facilities offering surgical abortions exist only in the GTA, Kitchener, Hamilton, London and Ottawa.  Across the country, women in remote or rural areas have to travel large distances at considerable personal expense to access reproductive health care.  Outside of urban centers, access to medical abortions rests upon the discretion of a family physician.  A 2005 study by the Medical Students for Choice found that, on average, Canadian medical schools provide only one hour of abortion training during a four year curriculum.

Canadians are fortunate to have a feminist Prime Minister who supports reproductive choice and his vocal support of abortion access in PEI only solidifies the stark contrast in the North American experience.  But unequal access to this important health care service means that Canadian women continue to face costs of the procedure, travel, time off work, and even overnight accommodations.  Let's ensure we don't punish women for seeking legal abortions in Canada.

Marilla McCargar is a PhD candidate and sessional instructor at The University of Western Ontario.  She teaches in the Department of Women's Studies and Feminist Research and the Department of History.  She writes a blog at ladyhistorian.com and can be found on twitter @marillamccargar