When Anna Brown* found out she was pregnant, she says she was faced with one of the hardest decisions she would ever have to make.
“I have always supported a woman’s right to choose and that will never change. So when I had to make that choice for myself it was hard,” says Brown. “I came to consider the options of what my life would be like.”
Brown says she considered her financial and personal situation, but as a 20-year-old university student, she decided that she could not adequately support a child. She says she considered adoption, but did not think she could handle the reactions from her family once they found out she was pregnant.
“That left abortion,” says Brown. “It was a hard decision but ultimately it was the only one.”
Brown is just one example of the tens of thousands of Canadian women who undergo abortions every year.
For women like Brown, seeking abortion services could put her behind bars if a Conservative MP gets his way.
MP Stephen Woodworth has proposed a motion to form a federal committee that would debate the legal personhood of a fetus.
The motion is slated for debate Monday, April 26, and is guaranteed at least one full hour of debate time.
Declaring a fetus a legal person before birth would grant it the rights guaranteed under the Charter, including the right to life, and thus abortion would constitute murder.
“A fetus is part of a woman’s body and cannot be granted separate rights,” says Agathe Gramet-Kedzior, acting executive director of Canadians for Choice, a non-profit organization that provides education and research on reproductive services.
Woodworth, who served as a Catholic school board trustee before being elected as an MP, says medical experts will present information to the committee that will prove to them that life begins before birth. The committee would be composed of twelve members of Parliament.
The committee would then propose options to Parliament that would affirm, replace, or amend current legislation which Woodworth says is a “400-year-old law” that does not reflect “modern scientific evidence.”
Currently, Canadian law states that an individual becomes a legal person when he or she has fully exited the birth canal and is breathing independently.
“This law…fails to recognize the humanity of some human beings,” says Woodworth. “I think most Canadians intuitively know, and know from their own experience, that indeed a child is a human being before the moment of complete birth.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he will not reopen the abortion debate, however private members motions can still be put forth to do so.
“This shows the hidden agenda and true meanings of the Conservative government,” says Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC). “It keeps his [Harper’s] right wing base happy and it lets him play both sides of the fence… it’s a political game, and it’s unfortunate because it’s women’s rights they’re playing with.”
Private member’s motions are unlikely to pass; especially ones that mimic previously failed motions and bills.
However, this debate is cause for concern for many women’s rights activists and the status of reproductive services in Canada that are already struggling to function properly and are getting tired of defending their legitimacy.
Abortion has a rocky history in Canada
In 1869, abortion was made illegal and punishable by life in prison. Providing information about birth control was also illegal. One hundred years later, in 1969, Parliament amended Section 251 of the Criminal Code, decriminalizing contraception and allowing for abortion in extreme circumstances.
Between 1969 and 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down anti-abortion laws, there was much debate, activism, and backlash surrounding access to abortion services.
The Abortion Caravan, composed of a group of feminist activists, traveled in 1970 from Vancouver to Ottawa to advocate for reproductive health care. For the first time in Canadian history, Parliament was closed after thirty of these women chained themselves to the parliamentary gallery in the House of Commons.
Between 1970 and 1988, the anti-choice movement generated a strong backlash against this activism, including sending death threats and hate mail to abortion providers, as well as committing acts of violence against doctors who performed these procedures.
In 1988, the Supreme Court stated that anti-choice legislation violates women’s rights to life, liberty, and security.
In reaction to the violent anti-choice activism, the BC Court of Appeal restored the Access to Abortion Services Act in 1995: It prohibits protests outside of abortion clinics and the homes of abortion providers.
“There have been many anti-choice private members bills presented in the past that purport to look at fetal personhood and fetal rights. In fact, their primary motivation is to erode abortion rights and women’s rights,” says Gramet-Kedzior.
This includes Motion M-83, put forward in 2003, by MP Gary Breitkrutz, that would examine whether abortions were medically necessary.
In 2006, MP Paul Steckle introduced Bill C-338, a bill that would criminalize abortions performed after 20 weeks. In 2008, Private Member’s Bill C-484, known as the “Unborn Victims of Crime Act,” would have declared a fetus to be a legal person.
None of these motions or bills eventually passed, although all made it through a first reading.
As health care is a provincial responsibility, Conservative provinces, Northern and rural communities have inadequate access compared to the “good to excellent” access of urban cities, says Arthur of ARCC.
Women in New Brunswick are required to have referrals from two doctors to have an abortion at one of two hospitals, or the sole clinic, that offer the procedure.
The province of Prince Edward Island does not offer abortion services but will pay for the procedure for women who are willing to travel elsewhere. This creates an accessibility issue, as young or poor women may not be able to afford the travel costs.
But even larger cities can have inadequate services.
“Honestly, I waited too long in the waiting room,” says Brown. “I was naked under a gown watching Good Morning America in a room of strangers dressed the same.”
Why abortion is important for women’s health
While abortion has a tumultuous history in Canada, the consequences of potentially reopening the debate are severe for maintaining women’s health and security.
“If there were a redefining of personhood under the Criminal Code it would come into direct conflict with women’s rights under the Charter,” says Gramet-Kedzior.
Taking away a woman’s right to choose whether or not to carry a fetus to term violates her right to security of the person, including the right to privacy of the body and its health.
The Canadian Medical Association says that choosing to have an abortion should be a decision made between a patient and her doctor.
“When it’s not legal, women turn to unskilled practitioners or try to do it themselves, and they die or become injured. It just doesn’t work to limit abortion to criminal or civil law,” says Arthur.
The impact of anti-choice legislation
Conservative MP Woodworth acknowledges that anti-choice ideology creates a conflict of rights: the bodily rights of a woman versus the rights of an unborn fetus.
“There can still be a question about what point a child becomes a human being,” says Woodworth. He says present legislation “strips children of any recognition or rights until the moment of complete birth.”
He says that the pro-choice position believes that “if there’s a good enough reason, we can pick on any group or person and say they’re not human. We all know that from the moment of conception the material is alive, it’s not a dead thing that happens when an egg is fertilized… We’re not talking about when life begins. For that, there’s no question.”
Anti-choice believes that life begins at conception, or before complete birth. They hold the rights of this belief above a woman’s bodily rights.
“Women have constitutional rights and you can’t take them away and give them to fetuses,” says Arthur. “The definition of a human being is proven based on found principle. It fits within our human rights framework that we use today… Women are much better off when they have the power to decide when, whether and how many children to have.”
The language MP Woodworth uses neglects the fact that the fetus is not an individual, but an entity completely dependent on a woman’s body, says Arthur
“He’s begging the question and assuming the conclusion,” says Arthur. “He believes fetuses are children with human rights and then says we need to determine that.”
There are approximately 100,000 abortions performed every year in Canada, says Arthur.
If these pregnancies are carried to full-term, there will be serious consequences for social services.
Without abortion services, there will be a bigger strain on existing childcare services, including child protective and children’s aid services, to deal with unwanted pregnancies.
If a woman suffers a miscarriage or stillbirth, she could be held criminally responsible for the death of the child as it could be seen as involuntary manslaughter. This would put more strain on our court systems.
“Medicine is not governed by criminal law,” says Arthur. “Pregnancy is a health condition and taking a legal approach to it is the wrong approach.”
The anti-choice movement
Anti-choice rhetoric often depicts abortion as being something that commonly happens in the third trimester, but this is not the case, says Arthur.
Abortions are legal in Canada until 20 weeks.
To have an abortion, the patient must go through a series of tests to determine the conception date. This determines what procedure will be done.
“The whole abortion procedure took two days,” says Brown. “I spent one day going to the hospital and getting a blood sample to estimate of age of the fetus. The next day the actual procedure took place.”
After 20 weeks, an abortion is only performed in an emergency situation, for example, if the mother’s life is at risk. A fetus born up until 20 weeks would likely not survive.
MP Woodworth says that society has developed towards protecting human rights, and that a fetus may be subject to these rights.
“The decision in the 1850s in the United States to declare Blacks were not persons under the American law is similar to the decision in Canada in the early twentieth century to declare that women were not persons under some Canadians laws. It is wrong in principle. So, I think that the defense of human rights is important at any time at any age,” says Woodworth. “It’s akin to saying should a blonde be given the same rights as every other Canadian.”
“Should Canada in the 21st century have a law that says some human beings are not human beings?” asks Woodworth.
However, implementing laws that possess ideology that is not a universal truth for all Canadians is too dangerous.
Arthur says that the best way to help children is to make sure pregnant women have adequate support and health services, including the right to control their bodies.
After all, the de-criminalization of abortion services was not the beginning of women having abortions.
Rather, it was the end of women like Brown suffering or dying, as they no longer have had to take extreme measures to gain control of their bodies, and their lives.
“I’m lucky to not have run into any anti-choice protesters during the ordeal,” says Brown. “That would have been the worst. The frequency with which I see such groups in Ottawa or on campus seems to make up for it though.”
Brown says she still thinks about her abortion every day. It was not a decision she made easily and it will have lasting effects.
However, she had a choice, and she says she feels she made the right one.