How Abortion Became One Of The Hot-Button Issues Of This Election

Half of Canadian women are worried access to abortion will be restricted. In a country where reproductive rights seemed guaranteed, how did we get here? And do we need to worry?

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It’s a sticky late August night in Toronto, the kind of summer evening where the entire city seems to be out, on a patio, in a park. Beside the packed bars on Queen Street West, a small lineup has formed outside local landmark and concert venue, the Great Hall. Within the hour, Canadian bands such as the Beaches, Ralph, and Tush will take the stage for the pro-choice fundraiser, Body Party. Inside, about 500 concertgoers, women and men, (but mostly women), young and old (but mostly young, and with excellent outfits), sip drinks and chat to pass the time until the first act starts.
“We came up with the idea of the concert on the day the Alabama bill was passed,” Madeleine Taurins tells me, sitting with her best friend and one of her fellow co-organizers, Jaime Eisen, on a bench outside the washrooms, the only quiet spot we can find inside. She’s referring to the heartbeat bills passed earlier this year in six American states, a political move that ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically at around six weeks, a point when a woman might not even realize she’s pregnant. (Alabama’s bill goes a step further, prohibiting almost all abortions.) “We said, ‘We wish we could do more,’ and then we realized we could do more. In Canada, we hear a lot of, ‘Thank god I'm not in the States — it's terrible there,’ but what people don't realize or think about is that the history of abortion provision here is really fraught.”
Despite abortions being legal in Canada since 1988, access is still hit and miss. And according to a Refinery29 survey of more than 1,000 Canadian women, 56% of 18- to 35-year-olds are worried access will be restricted further. It’s a fear stoked by what’s happening south of the border, but also at home, where abortion has become a hot-button issue in the 2019 federal election. In a country where reproductive rights once seemed like a guarantee, how did we get here? And do we really need to be afraid?
In Canada, abortion is considered a medical service that should be covered through insurance. The problem? Healthcare providers determine access, and as such, abortion services vary by province. Just one in six Canadian hospitals offer abortions. You couldn't get one in PEI until 2017, and across Manitoba’s 650,000 square kilometres, only three clinics will cover the cost. In New Brunswick, if you want a surgical abortion outside of a hospital, you have to pay upfront and seek reimbursement later (you have to pay administration fees in some Ontario clinics). In Alberta, crisis pregnancy centres — basically anti-choice centres masquerading as women’s support groups — outnumber clinics that provide abortions four to one. In some provinces and territories, including PEI, Yukon, and Nunvaut, you can’t get a surgical abortion much later than 12-weeks gestation. (Abortions are typically performed up to around 24 weeks.)
Mifegymiso, a two-step pill alternative to surgical abortion, was approved for use in Canada in 2017, potentially opening up access to women across the country, but doctors can refuse to prescribe it. Which they do. According to a report by the Globe and Mail, in many cases, doctors won’t give patients Mifegymiso because of “a professional reluctance to be seen as an abortion provider and a perception that the pill is too complex to administer.”
Marginalized women, especially those who live in rural, typically more conservative communities, are especially isolated from abortion access. Most abortion clinics are located within 150 kilometres of the U.S. border, which means women may need to pay for travel and miss work to get to them. In short, Canada isn’t exactly a promised land of reproductive rights. “Just because it is legal here, doesn't mean that it is accessible everywhere,” says Sarah Hobbs, executive director of Planned Parenthood Toronto.

In Alberta, crisis pregnancy centres — basically anti-choice centres masquerading as women’s support groups — outnumber clinics that provide abortions four to one.

And there are fears that things could get worse — especially with the growing anti-choice movement in the United States stoking the same sentiment here, along with the rise of a new, media-savvy generation of pro-life protestors. “There is certainly a more strategic [anti-abortion] movement now than there has been in the past,” says Kelly Gordon, an assistant professor in feminist and political theory at McGill University. Consider the rise of false stats that claim abortion causes breast cancer and other kinds of physical and psychological harm. Or the Canadian theatrical release of the American anti-abortion propaganda movie Unplanned, which played in over 30 cities here this summer. It made $450,000 on its first weekend, which means about 37,500 Canadians went to see it.
The anti-abortion movement has also been emboldened in the political arena. After Justin Trudeau’s win in 2015, Calgary-based Alissa Golob co-founded the anti-abortion political group RightNow. Its goal is to “elect pro-life politicians across the country, so we can start passing life-saving legislation for the first time in over 40 years.” Its volunteers are currently canvassing in 50 ridings for candidates it has deemed as being agreeable to its cause (all of whom are Conservatives). At the provincial level, 21-year-old MP Sam Oosterhoff was one of a handful of Ontario Conservative MPPs who attended a Toronto anti-choice rally in May. "We have survived 50 years of abortion in Canada and we pledge to fight to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime," he told the crowd.
Dozens of federal Conservatives attended a similar rally in Ottawa — a fact the Liberal Party (which now requires all members to be pro-choice, as does the NDP) made certain to flag to supporters in a fundraising email that same month. The email called out the Conservative MPs in attendance for “working to roll back women’s rights.” In response, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who is himself anti-abortion, has said that while he won’t prevent backbench MPs from raising the issue of abortion, a Conservative government wouldn’t reopen the abortion debate if he were elected come Oct. 21. (Early on in her campaign, Elizabeth May suggested the Greens would take a similar approach, which she later corrected, saying “we don’t have people who would want to reopen the abortion debate.")
Can we take Scheer's word for it? Gordon doesn’t see abortion rollbacks happening in Canada anytime soon. “There is just not the cultural support for that issue,” she says. With at least 77% of Canadians in agreement that there needs to be legal access to abortion “at least for now, there is a kind of understanding in the Conservative Party that this is not a winning position,” she adds.
So why are party leaders even talking about this on the 2019 campaign trail? It boils down to strategy. “Abortion and reproductive justice could be used to leverage the progressive vote,” says Stephanie Paterson, a political-science professor at Concordia University. It benefits the Liberals to bring up the Conservative MPs’ outlook on abortion rights to try to win women and left-leaning voters. Especially because Trudeau, while presenting himself as a champion of women’s rights, hasn’t done all that much policy-wise to push for better access to abortion. Similarly, it benefits the Conservatives to quietly align themselves with the anti-choice movement.
Bottom line, Canadian women need that access, says Sarah Kennell, director of government relations at the pro-choice charitable organization, Action Canada For Sexual Health And Rights. “Abortion should be considered the same as any healthcare procedure,” she says. “It’s just as safe and yet it is so politicized and stigmatized.”
Taurins agrees. She and Eisen’s concert raised $19,000, which they donated to Women’s College Hospital’s Bay Centre for Birth Control in Toronto, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, and the National Network of Abortion Funds in the U.S. They’ve already planned to host more Body Parties. “Even if abortion isn’t rolled back there’s so much further that we have to go in Canada,” she says. “That’s what we have to remind people.”

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