Canada is not a haven for women & abortion isn’t available ‘on demand’

I support abortion on demand for the entirety of a woman’s pregnancy. It is absolutely unacceptable that women require permission from two doctors to make a decision about what is best for their body. Our abortion laws are archaic and misogynistic. And, we allow “protestors” to harass women accessing clinics despite serious campaigning from organisations like BPAS (and @extreme_crochet!)

I was nodding my head along to this article by Caroline Criado-Perez demanding a fundamental change to how we understand abortion taking it out of criminal and making it a human right. Then I read this:

In Canada, one of the few countries where there are no legal restrictions on abortion – where for nearly three decades abortion has not been limited by criminal law, but by the Health Act – women have not run rampant with their autonomy.

and winced. Legal abortions were brought in the Canadian Health Act in 1969 but only in select circumstances. All other abortions remained illegal until 1988 when Henry Morgentaler challenged the criminal law before the Supreme Court and won. Technically, there are no “legal restrictions” on abortion. That doesn’t mean all women have equal access to abortion. Health is a devolved issue to provincial governments and access to abortion is depended on provincial legislatures. We may have a law guaranteeing access to abortion but that only benefits women with access to a local service provider or those who have the financial ability to travel – the similarities to Northern Ireland are quite obvious.

Women in Prince Edward Island have no access to abortion within the province. They are required to travel – most to either New Brunswick or Nova Scotia. PEI healthcare will pay for the actual abortion but not travel to and from a clinic. Abortion is also restricted to 16 weeks and 5 days in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Women who need one after this date are forced to travel to Ontario or Quebec. Women in PEI must have a blood test and ultrasound performed before being referred to a hospital – and doctors are not required by law to refer to women further delaying the process whilst women access a GP who will refer them. Private clinics do not require this but provincial healthcare insurance does not cover their costs.

Women in PEI can travel to Nova Scotia. They used to be able to travel to New Brunswick but the Morgentaler clinic, the only abortion clinic in the province, closed last year due to funding cuts. Women living in isolated communities find it far more difficult to access basic healthcare, never mind abortions. For a woman living in a small community in Nunavut, Northwest Territories or Yukon, travel to a larger centre with a hospital that provides abortions can cost the equivalent of an international flight to the UK. Women on the Eastern seaboard are actually travelling to Maine to access their legal right to abortion under Canadian law.

Abortion tourism has not been sufficiently researched to assess the data but it happens to women whose legal guarantee to abortion is irrelevant in the face of other legal and financial barriers.

This is why i loathe the myths surrounding Canada being a haven for women. It’s just not true and it isn’t just intellectually lazy to employ, it’s actually dangerous. Reading Criado-Perez’s piece you would assume every single woman in Canada has access to abortion on demand and that the decrease in numbers of abortion is due to women’s choices rather than limited access to abortion.

Canada frequently makes the Top Ten of the UN’s human development index. That only works if you ignore the fact that Human Rights Watch had to investigate the disappearance of Indigenous women along the so-called “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia for the government to at least make a pretence of taking Indigenous femicide seriously.

Women’s services are being decimated by the national, provincial and local governments. The welfare state supports women in poverty even less than the government of the UK does. Access to healthcare is a postcode lottery as is access to child tax credits. Indigenous women are raped and prostituted by white men at statistically significant higher rates than other women but the various governments aren’t interested in actually stopping this racialised femicide.

Women across the world deserve access to abortion on demand. They deserve reproductive justice but comparisons to Canada will not get women in the UK these rights. Unless we want to continue a two-tiered system that only benefits white women living in urban areas.

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