Election 2019: A global leader on abortion rights tolerates barriers at home

September 3, 2019

Nearly 25 years ago, Canada participated in the 4th World Conference on Women, which resulted in global adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The conference set a new course for feminist activism by recognizing women’s rights as human rights. Bodily autonomy, the ability to decide freely over our bodies, was declared critical to realizing those rights.

Since then, and particularly in the past couple of years, Canada has been a leader on the world stage in defending sexual and reproductive rights, including the right to safe abortion care. The federal government has held the line in tense intergovernmental negotiations and committed to becoming the largest donor to comprehensively address sexual and reproductive rights in its development assistance.

This has all been in the face of extreme backlash against sexual and reproductive rights, including in the U.S. where a 2017 Trump administration order reinstated and expanded the “Global Gag Rule”—a prohibition on foreign NGOs receiving U.S. assistance related to global health from using non-U.S. funding to provide abortion services, information, counseling or referrals, and from engaging in advocacy for access to safe abortion services. At the U.S. state level, governments are also enacting extreme legislation to roll back abortion care.

Despite the strong positions taken by Canada on the global stage in the face of U.S. backlash, access to abortion in Canada remains a significant challenge for many. Most abortion providers are located within 150 km from the U.S. border and only one in six hospitals provide the service. That leaves many people travelling large distances to access abortion, sometimes across provincial lines, at their own expense. Because no hospital or clinic in Canada provides abortion after 23 weeks, those in need must find it in the U.S. where abortion care is becoming increasingly threatened.

Access is further hindered by medically unnecessary rules and regulations at provincial and territorial levels or within regional health systems and hospital settings. Regulation 84-20 in New Brunswick, for example, denies coverage of the cost of surgical abortion services outside of hospitals, leaving those seeking abortion services at the only freestanding clinic to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket.

In Alberta, the provincial Telehealth phone line is currently referring individuals who are seeking support to crisis pregnancy centres, anti-choice agencies that claim to offer unbiased medical counselling. Throughout Canada, there are also countless reports of harassment, threats, violence and intimidation from anti-choice protesters outside of sexual health clinics and hospitals.

Interference and intimidation from anti-choice organizations and activists often misleads, obfuscates, and delays individuals from seeking abortion care. These groups are incredibly well-resourced and well-mobilized, with allies in political spheres that are committed to not only blocking increased access to abortion care in Canada, but also restricting access through legislation, paid advertisements and media, and grassroots mobilization. The Canadian “premiere” of the anti-choice “made-for-TV” propaganda film, Unplanned, was screened on Parliament Hill and some provincial political parties and candidates are campaigning on commitments to restrict abortion, sex-ed and gay-straight alliances in schools.

The politicization of abortion is unlike any other health care service in Canada. Decision-makers at all levels of government use abortion as a wedge issue to gain political points rather than recognize abortion as another health service they are responsible to provide and support. This politicization stands in the way of access by perpetuating myths and stigma and leaving the service frustratingly outside of primary health care, inaccessible to far too many people in Canada.

As countries, including Canada, reflect on their implementation of the 25-year-old Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the federal government and provinces need to address the lingering barriers to what is considered a medically necessary procedure under the Canada Health Act. The solutions aren’t out of reach. It is a matter of political will.

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights (formerly Planned Parenthood Canada) and our allies across the country are looking to the federal government to play a leadership role in levelling the playing field. Especially in Canada, a country that prides itself on its national health care, access to abortion shouldn’t depend on your postal code or how much you have in your bank account.

Our vision is for everyone to receive the care they need, where they live. The federal government can do so by:

  • withholding cash transfers to provinces and territories that fail to meet obligations under the Canada Health Act;
  • dispelling the misinformation that anti-choice groups, including crisis pregnancy centres, disseminate—by mandating that Health Canada publish accurate, evidence-based information about abortion care and where to access it;
  • providing free access to comprehensive contraceptive care in advance of the rollout of a national pharmacare strategy; and
  • investing in the training of professional sexual health educators to better deliver comprehensive sexuality education in schools.

As Canadians head to the polls in October, and Canada prepares to present what steps it has taken toward realizing commitments agreed to during the 1995 Beijing conference, this is what needs to be on the table.

Sarah Kennell is Director of Government Relations at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.