Hard-won Choice at Risk

The Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada is promoting a Day of Action for Choice on April 25th with the slogan, “Your right to choose is at risk.” Pro-choice activists around the world are feeling insecure as never before – years of abortion clinic bombings and bloody fetuses notwithstanding. The April 25th event in Canada was timed to coincide with a March for Women’s Lives organized for that date by the U.S. Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice organizations.

While the pro-choice world has long had to protect itself from low-level (though often violent) nutcases, it’s far more disturbing when the extremists are camped out in the Oval Office. We should be paying close attention. Outside of Canada and the U.S., women’s rights activists know that it’s not just Americans who have an interest in the upcoming U.S. elections.

Since George Bush reinstated the Global Gag Rule (officially called the Mexico City Policy) in 2001, women around the world have lost access to safe abortions, contraception and even family planning counselling. The Global Gag Rule, during its previous run from 1984 to 1992, did not reduce abortions. It denies USAID funding and family planning assistance to international NGOs who use funding from any other source to perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the life of the woman, rape, or incest; who provide counseling and referral for abortion; or who lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country. This has forced a terrible choice on organizations desperate for U.S. funds, donated contraceptives, technical assistance and training.

This is in the background. But abortion has been legal here since 1988, when the Supreme Court struck down 1969 abortion laws that made abortions legal under certain conditions. Should we in Canada really be concerned that our right to choose is at risk?

After all, there’s some disagreement over just who is under attack at the moment? Graphic pro-lifer literature and websites claim that it’s the estimated 35 million unborn babies who have been aborted since 1973, and argue that they speak against the tide of liberal death-dealing that has been corrupting Canadians to the point that the vast majority feel that an abortion is an issue that should be up to a woman and her doctor. Anti-feminist R.E.A.L. Women say that they “represent a broad spectrum of Canadian women who, until our formation, did not have a public forum in which to express their views.” Catholics Against Contraception argue that “despite repeated warnings in God’s revelation encapsulated in the command “Thou shalt not kill,” the Culture of Death now permeates society as never before.”

But while conservative and pro-life groups in Canada like to assert that pro-choice interests have stifled a genuine debate about abortion rights, they take debate-crushing moves like the Global Gag Rule (and other expressions of fundamentalism in the United States) as hopeful signs. On the pro-choice side, in fact, we see an attack that is both obvious – George Bush’s rhetoric, the Reform-Alliance-Conservative party, and lethal attacks on abortion providers and clinics – and insidious.

It’s the stealth attack that I’d like to address here.

According to the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, while abortions are both legal and safe, access has decreased steadily since then. At the ten-year mark, in 1998, they released a report outlining this, and in 2003 their fifteen-year report described the effect on access of hospital mergers, scarcity of trained providers, scarcity of services in rural areas, and increased violence from the anti-choice (or pro-life) movement.

A study by CARAL found that hospital abortions are increasingly hard to come by. In some cases pro-life hospital personnel falsely tell callers that the hospital does not provide abortions. In others, women are referred to so-called Pregnancy Crisis Centres which pressure women not to have abortions. The result of this, of course, will be no less bloody than the worst pro-life propaganda.

According to IPAS, close to 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions. In October the World Health Organization reported that about 4 million women have illegal abortions in Latin America every year. An estimated 50,000 women a year either die or suffer serious complications after an illegal abortion in Peru alone. But unsafe abortions happen when there is a lack of access to safe ones, even if the law technically supports one’s right to choose.

We must vigorously fight off the chill drifting up from the U.S. and affirm that abortions must be legal, safe and accessible. With women’s rights under attack globally, if we don’t stay vigilant and vocal, we risk sleepwalking into a world without choice.