What My Botched Abortion Taught Me About Reproductive Rights in Canada

Calgary, where I grew up, is a friendly, town-like city with a beautiful, rugged Western skyline and a predominantly conservative pulse. I moved away 10 years to live abroad in bigger cities and write rambling blog posts about them, and experience life beyond going to The Mall as a social event. And five years later, I returned depressed and broke, but very well-dressed (thank you, Italy). My parents were worried about me, as were my childhood friends who did what we always do when we are together — handed me joints to forget our troubles. The weight of a heavy homecoming, with ghosts of the people and places I used to know and love, and ghosts of my former selves haunting highways and parking lots, was all too much, and just enough to prompt me to seek the comfort of the damaging familiar. Within a few weeks, I was drinking excessively, sleeping with people I should’ve ignored, and getting knocked up because my world was spinning out of control, so hey why not my womb, too?
After some painful deliberation, I got an abortion. I also got an education in the backwards workings of reproductive healthcare in Canada. Even though abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988, it exists in the healthcare system’s grey area. It is regulated provincially, which means access, cost, and how late in a pregnancy you can get one varies province to province to territory. Alberta, where I was staying, technically covers surgical abortions up to 24 weeks gestation, but only five places (all of them in Edmonton and Calgary) offer the procedures in the entire province.
The approval of the abortion pill Mifegymiso in 2017 (which can be taken up to nine weeks in a pregnancy) was supposed to make getting an abortion easier for women living in remote, rural communities, but many doctors are refusing to prescribe it. Late last year, Alberta Conservative MPP Dan Williams tabled a private members’ bill hoping to restrict access even further: Bill 207 would have protected doctors from referring patients to abortion practitioners if they found it morally objectionable to do so. The bill was voted down in committee pending public feedback, but it isn’t dead yet, and its mere existence is worrisome, if unsurprising. The current wave of anti-abortion sentiment in the United States and the abortion debate ahead of the 2019 Canadian federal election are reminders that the rights of women and marginalized people are often decided by a select few of very privileged, mostly white men.
But six years ago, I assumed getting an abortion in Calgary would be as easy as Googling “abortion Calgary,” so that’s what I did. The top hits for this search were websites with deceptively supportive names that present them as helpful counselling services for pregnant people. In actuality, these crisis pregnancy centres are run by adoption and anti-choice organizations. I later learned that, in Alberta, they outnumber abortion clinics four to one.
Luckily, I knew the name of a clinic in town that some friends had gone to years before. It's modern-looking and offers a more-holistic experience, so to speak, in that staff can do ultrasounds and blood work onsite. This nice abortion clinic would charge me $700 upfront for an out-of-province abortion (I had an Ontario health card, and the province would only reimburse about $200 for abortions.) At the time, there was also the added worry of being harassed by anti-choice protestors. A law was passed in 2018 that ensures a 50-metre bubble zone around abortion clinics.
Option two, the one hospital in the city that did abortions, was a comparative bargain at only $200, and since it was inside, protestors weren’t an issue. I chose the latter, because of the money. I’ve never felt less at home in Canada than I did that day, going to a hospital ATM to take out 10 $20 bills to hand to the receptionist — a reminder that everything about this was going to be transactional. It was also a reminder of my own privilege. I was staying a 30-minute drive from the hospital, unlike those who have to travel hundreds of kilometres to find someone to perform the procedure; I was able to pull together money to pay upfront; I had a friend to pick me up, and I had experience on my side to aid in navigating the healthcare system.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy, once made, is often a quick one, in that moving on with your life is paramount. After my standard surgical abortion, I experienced ceaseless pain, extreme nausea, and prolonged, excessive blood loss that prevented me from doing much of anything for weeks. The doctor I visited at a nearby walk-in clinic initially refused to treat me because her religion, Catholic, condemns abortion. Because I wasn’t up to hunting for another doctor, I ended up going to her three times before she finally referred me for an ultrasound. Today, had Bill 207 passed, she wouldn’t have legally been obligated to do anything.

I was left with a persistent pain in my left ovary and the same amount of trust in the healthcare system that I now have for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — which is to say, absolutely none.

Turns out, I was among the 0.5% of women who receive a botched abortion (mine led to a hemorrhagic complication). I ended up needing a second abortion, which the hospital offered to do pro bono. Afterwards, I was left with a persistent pain in my left ovary and the same amount of trust in the healthcare system that I now have for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — which is to say, absolutely none.
Six years later, the conversation about abortion in Canada continues to go round and round in a circle that sees it either hotly debated or spoken of in hushed tones, and neither is improving access or care for those who need one. And I get it. Abortions stir up conflicting emotions — they did in me. I had always been of the opinion that, while I was staunchly pro-choice, I’d never find myself in a situation where I’d need one. Until I did. When it was all over, I wanted a fresh start and moved to Vancouver for one, but the stench of my disillusionment and bitterness followed me. Luckily, time is a great healer, and I’m no longer emotionally messed up over my very messed up Alberta abortion, but I am still fucking mad. And with the overflowing human rights septic tank that is Bill 207 hanging in the shadows waiting for its moment to shine, you should be, too.

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