Christabelle Sethna takes the long view. A professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, she specializes in the history of sex education, contraception, and abortion in Canada.
And with the authority of that knowledge, she confidently states: “It is extremely foolish to believe that for every step forward, we don’t take 10 steps backward.”
With the United States Supreme Court poised to overturn the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, Canadians have been assessing the state of abortion access here at home.
Canada, of course, does not have Roe v. Wade; instead, we have R. v. Morgentaler, the 1988 decision by our own Supreme Court that struck down the abortion provision in Canada’s Criminal Code, finding it ran afoul of the Charter’s guarantee of “security of the person.”
Since then, Canada has been without federal laws providing for or denying access to abortion. And in the absence of regulation, access has, in practical fact, varied widely throughout the country. Abortion is allowed in Canada, but even after Morgentaler, it has not always been available. Until 2017, for example, it still wasn’t possible to get an abortion on Prince Edward Island, and that only changed because of the work of committed activists over many years.
On this week’s CANADALAND, senior producer Sarah Lawrynuik looks at the country’s hard-fought battles for reproductive rights, the gaps in access that remain, and the extent to which such rights are more or less tenuous than those in the States:
For the episode, Sarah spoke to a number of experts on and advocates for abortion access in Canada. The show includes some of their comments on the impending overturn of Roe, but we wanted to share more of what they had to say about it.
The following remarks have been edited and condensed.
A retired practitioner of family law, Deb Miller is co-chair of the Edmonton chapter of the Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund (LEAF), intervening in cases involving women and girls and inadequate access to justice. In the early 1990s, she helped bring abortion access to Alberta by working with Dr. Henry Morgentaler to open a standalone clinic in Edmonton.
I was horrified. There’s only a few times when your old feminist buddies phone you in tears, and one of them was when RBG died. And this was one of those. I got like five or six phone calls last night. And we were all horrified. We felt like we were in The Handmaid’s Tale. We were all going to Gilead. And it was, it was, it’s scary. It’s always done on the backs of women. I don’t think these people give a rat’s rear end about kids or whatever; it’s just control our bodies. Well, you know what I have to say about that: Fuck them.
We’re very fortunate in Canada that we don’t have a precedent or a law. There is no law at all. They would have to make a law to make it illegal, which I don’t see happening. But that’s not to say the attitude is going to not filter in. And I think we all notice a big swing to the right lately everywhere.
Last night I was saying, “Fifty years and we’re back where we started” — but we’re further back than we were in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided. I saw a poster at the Women’s March when Trump got into power and they had those pink hats and whatever. I saw some woman my age with white hair with a big poster that said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this 50 fucking years later.” You know? And it just feels like… I thought we’d made this progress, but have we?
Christabelle Sethna is a historian and professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, whose research focuses on the history of sex education, contraception, and abortion in Canada.
It is impossible to talk about abortion access without speaking about it transnationally, because events that happen in one region or one country will end up directly or indirectly affecting abortion access in another region or country. And women’s networks play a major role in connecting women seeking abortion services with abortion providers.
But just as pro-choice activists have international connections and, in many cases, funding, so too does the anti-abortion lobby. Among the anti-abortion lobby, there is a tendency now to disregard its earlier history of violence and promote itself as a lobby that is securing women’s health and the health of the fetus. And one of the ways in which the anti-abortion lobby can work is by constructing laws in a certain way that would offer “personhood” protections to the fetus.
To me, the lesson is very simple. The lesson is access to abortion can be taken away. It can disappear. It can be made more difficult. And so we have to pay attention to these stealth moves that threaten abortion services. And we also have to improve access to abortion services within a reproductive-justice framework.
Colleen MacQuarrie is a psychology professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, who’s been an abortion activist for most of her adult life. Throughout the 2010s and earlier, she was a key figure in the fight for abortion access in PEI, and even got to serve then-premier Wade MacLauchlan with the paperwork in the legal challenge that led to reproductive services finally being offered in the province.
If a small minority of anti-abortion legislators get into power, they can roll back our access to all kinds of equity care. And yes, you could have very strong people such as ourselves, who know that misogyny is rampant, and we can fight against it. But the truth of the matter is that if the ruling class, or the ruling politicians, deem that a group doesn’t deserve human rights, they can take them away.
“I don’t think politicians in Canada are any different from politicians in any other part of the world, to the extent that they think that it can be self-serving to sacrifice people’s human rights.”
The legal system in Canada is different from the legal system in the United States. But our experience here in Prince Edward Island was that this province decided it would thumb its nose at the constitution. And from 1988 up until 2017, continued to thumb its nose at the experiences of people who needed abortions, and continues to thumb its nose in some way, because the access we were promised hasn’t been completely delivered upon yet.
And there are still politicians in our legislature who are opposed to our access to abortion services here. So anyone who smugly is sitting back and imagining, “Oh, this could never happen in Canada” doesn’t understand the history of misogyny and the way in which access to reproductive rights and care has always been a hard-won fight. And as soon as you gain access, you will have people who think that your access to abortion is somehow their business. And it does come back to the roots of misogyny and patriarchy, and the understanding that church and state are never very far from intertwining. And that’s not to say that people of faith are not also deeply connected to abortion access. I mean, we have many faith systems that absolutely support the humanity of people to get basic medical care, such as abortion.
But the problem becomes when the politicians start to pander and they have a single-minded idea that restricting abortion access will somehow give them a political up. And we have to also look at the economic forces that start to play. So when you get very powerful people lobbying the government on particular sectors, women’s rights tend to be part of the game. This came to me very clearly when I started to talk to the politicians, and they would say things like, “Well, you know, personally, I think a woman has a right to choose. But, you know, in PEI, that’s not a very popular attitude.” They would say those things, with no joking aside, and think they could look a woman in the eye and tell her that her human rights were a good compromise for other people’s moral discomfort or for their electoral success. And so I don’t think politicians in Canada are any different from politicians in any other part of the world, to the extent that they think that it can be self-serving to sacrifice people’s human rights.
“When the rest of the country was enjoying fairly good access, there was very little interest from feminists as to what was happening in PEI”
The good news, I think, is that ultimately we were able to use existing legal precedents to take our province to court. In the situation that they’re in south of the border, they’re rolling back legal precedents. So I think that puts us in a very new shifting sand. Again, the legal systems in the two different nation states are very different. But the question arises in my mind: What could they do to us here to remove our capacity to use Morgentaler? Because we had that 1988 decision that basically said you can’t prohibit access to abortion and clinics, and then subsequent governments haven’t given us a federal law. They said, basically, the default was we can’t tell people where they can or can’t have an abortion. But what might they put in place in Canada in the absence of that? And that to me is a major calling card that the anti-abortionists have been trying to get: they want to get a federal government that will actually make a law prohibiting abortion.
I’ve been following this, and there are many people who said — and I’m thinking about the BC politician, whose escapes me — but she said, “Over my dead body.” And I cringed. Does she realize how many dead bodies have already been sacrificed? She should be careful. I mean, it’s wonderful to say, “Over my dead body they’ll do that.” But she needs to understand, we’ve already had a body count on this.
When the rest of the country was enjoying fairly good — I mean, obviously rural and remote regions were very similar to PEI — but when the rest of the nation was enjoying unfettered access, there was almost very little interest from feminists as to what was happening here, you see. So there have been bodies already piled up on this issue, and it’s not… It’s very cold comfort.
Originally from the U.S,. Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is the founder of the Alberta Abortion Access Network, where she trains abortion doulas — support workers who help clients access reproductive healthcare and serve as their advocates.
I think Canadians are very shocked by this leaked memo and this idea of Roe being undermined. However, in the States, for a lot of us that have been doing this work for a long time, we’ve been expecting this for about the last 20 years. Any time you have something that is considered constitutionally protected, or a Supreme-Court-affirmed right, a group that opposes it cannot just come out and try to erase that right. So what they do is they chip away at it very slowly. And so that’s what happened: ever since Roe v. Wade was enshrined in 1973, there have been groups coming out and slowly chipping away at this access.
And so they introduced things like trap laws, mandatory waiting periods, all these things that would just make it harder for someone to access abortion care. And what I like to say to Canadians is that you really can’t be too complacent about it, even up here. Even in Alberta in 2019, we had this private member’s bill that was meant to expand the conscience clause so that not only would physicians be protected from having to perform an abortion, but that the doctor who objected would not actually have to refer a patient, either — which we already know in practice is exactly what’s happening. But it’s another way to sort of take something that is considered an enshrined right and just make it impossible to access. And Alberta Health Services is pretty complicit in that, even if they don’t realize it, in not enforcing these standing laws that we do have.
It’s really hard to watch from afar, as my friends and fellow reproductive-justice advocates try to salvage whatever they can of abortion care in the United States.
Top image includes part of The Globe and Mail‘s front page from January 29, 1988, reporting the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v Morgentaler, as well as a screencap from a 1983 CBC News report capturing a man lunging toward Dr. Henry Morgentaler with a pair of garden shears at the opening of his Toronto clinic. (Morgentaler was uninjured.)