What's on the horizon for reproductive rights in Canada for 2015? Let's take a look back at 2014, especially at some ongoing initiatives that may prove very fruitful for 2015.
Anti-choice dinosaurs now extinct in Liberal Party
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced in May that new candidates for the party must agree to vote pro-choice on any motions or bills related to abortion. Despite the ensuing media tempest and loud denunciations from the usual conservative suspects, Trudeau stood firm. For example, after seven former Liberal MPs condemned his stance, he put them in their place by tweeting: "The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone." Trudeau even clarified that anti-choice incumbents would also be required to vote pro-choice, which was followed by two of the three remaining dinosaurs acquiescing to the new policy (no comment from the third, John McKay).
If the surprise announcement was meant as a pre-election campaign move to test the waters, Trudeau succeeded -- the new policy has not hurt him in the polls and is unlikely to affect votes much in the October 2015 election, since most social conservatives don't vote Liberal anyway.
Provided the Liberal Party forms the next government in Canada AND keeps their promise, the pro-choice movement can rest easier knowing that anti-choice bills or motions will no longer pose a threat. Conservatives might continue to introduce them of course, but there have been none since 2012 and we're optimistic their numbers will be far fewer going forward, especially given the thrashing the last few received.
Repeal of New Brunswick's abortion restriction opens doors to further progress
Until January 1, 2015, New Brunswick had been enforcing a restrictive abortion regulation for over 20 years, even though it was unconstitutional and created hardship for women and trans* people. The regulation required a patient to obtain written approval from two doctors who had to certify that the abortion was "medically necessary" before being allowed a funded abortion at a hospital.
It took the shocking closure of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, the province's only abortion clinic, to finally spark change. Between the clinic's April announcement and its July closure, a vibrant new reproductive rights movement sprung to life in New Brunswick. Its young activists campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness, and lobbied the government to repeal the regulation. They also raised over $130,000 to try and lease or buy the clinic so it could be re-opened. Last May, I wrote: "The [New Brunswick] government's arrogant dismissal of women's health and lives has enraged an entire new generation of activists... Come election time this fall, it may cost the government dearly."
Well, election day was September 22 and the Conservatives lost badly. The Liberals and new Premier Brian Gallant gained a majority government, in part on the promise to eliminate barriers to abortion access. It was the first time that abortion had ever been an election issue in the province. On November 26, Gallant partly fulfilled his promise by announcing he was scrapping the two-doctor approval regulation.
Unfortunately, a second regulation remains that limits funded abortions to hospitals, which means that the province still won't fund clinics. This violates the Canada Health Act because in 1995, Health Canada required all provinces and territories to fully fund private clinics if they provided medically necessary procedures, and clarified that such clinics are included in the definition of "hospitals" under the Act.
The pro-choice movement is optimistic that it can meet the two major challenges that lie ahead for New Brunswick in 2015: repealing the second regulation that restricts abortions to hospitals, and re-opening a new clinic that will provide abortions (hopefully fully funded) as well as other reproductive health care and primary health care.
Prince Edward Island will be truly idyllic with abortion services
It was revealed in May 2014 that the National Abortion Federation (based in the U.S. but with a Canadian office in Victoria, B.C.) found three doctors willing to travel regularly to P.E.I. to provide abortions there. P.E.I. is the only province in Canada where no services exist and women are forced to go to Nova Scotia for a funded abortion (or elsewhere if they pay themselves). Research by Colleen MacQuarrie has shown that P.E.I.'s stance is dangerous, because some P.E.I. women have taken drastic steps to end their pregnancies on their own.
NAF's proposal would have saved money for the small, cash-strapped province (not to mention women's money -- and health and lives). Health PEI was supportive, yet incredibly, P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz nixed it for no reason he's been willing to share, other than it goes "against government policy." The thing is, there IS no policy. One is left to wonder whether this unwritten "policy" is derived from Premier Robert Ghiz's personal anti-choice beliefs, or perhaps a long-ago private deal struck between the P.E.I. government and the Island's anti-choice movement.
Premier Ghiz is a Liberal (a living dinosaur, unfortunately), and Justin Trudeau thinks Prince Edward Islanders should be "asking questions to make sure the Canada Health Act is being respected..." Under the Act, provinces and territories are required to provide medically required services within their own borders. And since abortion is a quick and inexpensive procedure, P.E.I. has no excuse.
2015 will see ongoing pro-choice pressure put on Premier Ghiz, and we are optimistic for a capitulation. The government simply has no legal, ethical, rational or financial leg to stand on.
Mifepristone: Almost here at last!
The abortion drug previously known as RU-486 -- mifepristone -- looks set to be approved by Health Canada in mid-January. Health Canada has been considering whether to approve the drug for over three years, an unusually long time that may be due in part to the controversy and stigma around abortion -- although there is no direct evidence for that, given Health Canada's highly secretive drug approval process. But Health Canada is known to be both slow and conservative, especially when it comes to approving new contraceptives.
Nevertheless, all indications are that mifepristone will finally be approved. (It's been used safely by millions of women in 57 countries since 1988.) What will this mean for Canadians in 2015? First, it will take some time before the drug is actually available, and yet more time to train doctors to provide medical abortions. But once available, mifepristone has real potential for increasing women's choices and expanding services outside of hospitals and clinics, because doctors will be able to provide medical abortions in their offices. Mifepristone is also a great candidate for telemedicine in Canada, since women often have to travel long distances to access surgical abortion services.
These potential improvements in access mean that mifepristone would be especially important in areas with marginal or no abortion access, including New Brunswick, P.E.I., Saskatchewan, and rural and northern areas. Easier, earlier and more private access to abortion will also represent a major setback for the anti-choice movement.
Ontario doctors may soon be required to do their jobs
In December, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) unveiled its revised draft human rights policy. It would require doctors who object to providing care that contravenes their personal beliefs (primarily birth control and abortion) to promptly refer patients to another doctor who will provide the service. This would be a huge improvement over the old CPSO policy, as well as the Canadian Medical Association's Code of Ethics, both of which shamefully allow doctors to violate medical ethics and abandon their patients, based solely on the doctors' religious beliefs.
The CPSO's revised policy is currently under consultation, so it remains to be seen whether it will survive current anti-choice outrage. I believe it will, given that the 2014 consultation process for the original policy was also dominated by anti-choice insistence that doctors have the "right" to practice faith-based medicine (at the expense of patients' health and lives) -- yet the College bravely changed its policy anyway. Not only that, the chair of CPSO's policy working group, Dr. Marc Gabel, recently sent a strong message to Catholic doctors by telling the Catholic Register: "It may well be that you would have to think about whether you can practice family medicine as it is defined in Canada… Medicine is an amazingly wide profession with many, many areas to practice medicine."
Ideally, so-called "conscientious objection" should not be allowed at all in reproductive health care, because it discriminates against women and trans* people, and compromises their rights and health, plus doctors have a professional and moral obligation to provide care. But a referral requirement would at least be a good start down the road to weeding out anti-choice doctors entirely from family medicine and obstetrics/gynecology (in part because most anti-choice doctors will refuse to refer, hopefully leading to stricter measures against them). Further, the new Ontario policy could be a strong incentive for the CMA and College chapters in other provinces to fall in line and start clamping down on objectors too.
The pro-choice movement is looking forward to more pro-choice victories in the year ahead, and the further solidification of abortion rights in Canada. Of course, the biggest victory for us and for everyone else who cares about human rights and democracy would be the defeat of Harper and the Conservatives in the fall election. So don't just vote -- please volunteer for your local NDP, Green or Liberal candidate and help them get out the progressive vote!
Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.
Photo: Jenn Farr/flickr