Rona Ambrose, Minister for Status of Women, voted in September to support the anti-choice Motion 312 in order to "raise concern about discrimination by sex-selection abortion." While the motion was defeated, it received support from a majority of the Conservative caucus -- including 10 cabinet ministers and long-time anti-choice activist Jason Kenney. It also became a launching pad for anti-choice Motion 408 (M408), which will be debated in Parliament in March.
Introduced by Conservative MP Mark Warawa, M408 calls on "the House [to] condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination." In his petition supporting the motion, Warawa claims that "millions of girls have been lost through sex-selective abortion" and that we need to "condemn this worst form of discrimination against females." The motion articulates the anti-choice slogan that abortion hurts women, which accompanies the claim that abortion promotes ableism.
There is no proof that sex-selective abortion is a phenomenon in Canada. Because Canada has no legal restriction on abortion, 90 per cent of pregnancy terminations happen in the first trimester (before fetal sex determination by ultrasound is reliable) and 97 per cent by 16 weeks (before the 20 week routine prenatal ultrasound). The tiny fraction of abortions after 20 weeks occur for pregnancies that threaten the health of the mother.
A recent study by Joel Ray found discrepancies in the male:female child ratio in multiparous immigrant populations (particularly Indian) compared to the ratio in Canadian-born populations. But Prabhat Jha, University of Toronto chair of Disease Control and director of the Centre for Global Health research at St. Michael's Hospital, has refuted the significance of this difference and the assumption that this is due to sex-selective abortions in Canada.
Based on the findings of the study, he calculated that there are 245 "missing girls" for Indian-born mothers with at least two prior children. This accounts for 35 births per year -- less than 1 per cent of births to Indian women -- and could be accounted for by other factors such as migration of Indian women prior to giving birth to a male child. Even if we were to erroneously assume that this number were solely due to sex-selection, this would account for about 0.035 per cent of abortions in Canada.
Bad science aside, the purpose of this motion is inherently racist in nature and seeks to racially stereotype Indian communities in Canada and stigmatize them. If a law is created that bans sex-selective abortions, how would it be implemented? Already some Toronto-area hospitals have stopped telling women the sex of their fetus, and there have been calls -- opposed by The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada -- to generalize this policy.
This harkens back to the 1970s and 1980s when "therapeutic abortion committees" would sit in judgement to decide whether a woman had the right to exercise her reproductive choice. The push to restrict access to prenatal ultrasound information revives the paternalistic attitude that women can't be trusted to control their own bodies, and combines it with racial profiling.
Would every Indian woman seeking abortions be unnecessarily interrogated as to their reasons? Or perhaps even denied abortions, leading them to seek alternative (most likely unsafe) means -- all under the pretence of wanting to protect immigrant women? This, similar to the Conservatives' taking away refugee health care, is another way to single out immigrant groups with the idea that they don't deserve the same health care as the Canadian-born population. It suffices to read the comments section on media articles about "sex-selection abortion" to see the racist and anti-immigrant backlash this motion is promoting.
Associated with claims of gender discrimination, the anti-choice movement claims abortion discriminates against people with disabilities. We can be sure that if M408 is passed, it would be followed by another motion condemning "ableism from abortion," and both merely pay lip service to women and people with disabilities. One day the anti-choice tell women that children with disabilities are their punishment for having abortions, and the next they are telling women that they should risk giving birth to a potentially disabled child even at the risk of their own lives.
People with disabilities do face discrimination with respect to reproductive choice. It happens in subtle ways: the dead quiet after a little girl with a disability suggests that she is going to be a mommy someday, the doctor who asks a teenager with a disability why she wants birth control, the barrage of comments a pregnant woman with a disability is subjected to in public. It also happens in more overt ways -- like when a woman with a disability is not allowed to have her child in the maternity ward, the many unwarranted calls to the Children’s Aid Society, and even in some cases forced sterilization.
There are 300 million women with disabilities around the world, each one of them impacted by issues like these, compounded by the same lack of reproductive justice facing other women in their communities. What we need is a reproductive justice movement that welcomes women with disabilities in the way they want to be included.
Access to abortion
We don't combat discrimination by restricting abortion: restricting abortion is itself one of "the worst forms of discrimination against females," and a leading cause of maternal mortality. Most deaths are in the global south, but also in the north where abortion is criminalized -- like in Ireland, where Savita Halappanavar died last month after being denied an abortion.
Instead of opposing this form of discrimination, the Harper government has participated in it -- by defunding abortion globally through a "maternal health plan" that excludes abortion. As The Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals, stated: "This omission is not accident, but a conscious decision by Canada's Conservative Government not to support groups that undertake abortions in developing countries. This stance must change. 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions worldwide every year … Bans on the procedure, which are detrimental to public health, should be challenged by the G8, not tacitly supported. Canada and other G8 nations could show real leadership with a final maternal health plan that is based on sound scientific evidence and not prejudice." The Harper government ignored the medical advice and went on to restrict Planned Parenthood funding to countries where abortion is illegal.
Canada has its own bloody history of what happens when we restrict access to abortion. As Dr. Garson Romalis (who survived two anti-choice attacks) said in a speech on the 20th anniversary of the Morgentaler decision, recalling life before abortion was legal: "The first month of my internship was spent on Ward 41, the septic obstetrics ward. Yes, it's hard to believe now, but in those days, they had one ward dedicated exclusively to septic complications of pregnancy. About 90 per cent of the patients were there with complications of septic abortion. The ward had about 40 beds, in addition to extra beds which lined the halls. Each day we admitted between 10-30 septic abortion patients. We had about one death a month, usually from septic shock associated with hemorrhage. I will never forget the 17 year-old girl lying on a stretcher with 6 feet of small bowel protruding from her vagina. She survived."
Thanks to the pro-choice movement fighting for access to contraception and to strike down the law against abortion, Canada has one of the lowest rates of maternal mortality in the world, and lower rates of abortion than in the U.S. Abortion rights should not be restricted like the federal and Ontario Conservatives call for, but expanded to include PEI and New Brunswick -- and on October 20 the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada organized a day of action for reproductive justice to help renew the struggle for choice.
Abortion rights were won by a movement that focused on striking down a law (struck down 25 years ago this January), while mobilizing through a broad reproductive rights perspective: challenging the forced sterilization of indigenous and disabled women, building unity between the women's movement of Quebec and Canada, and mobilizing the student and labour movement to connect abortion rights with pay equity, maternity leave, childcare and sexual freedom.
A reproductive justice perspective remains central for the pro-choice movement, to expose the latest anti-choice arguments and rebuild a broad movement. While up-in-arms to defend "female fetuses," the Conservatives are silent about discrimination affecting women -- missing and murdered aboriginal women and the denial of indigenous sovereignty, criminalization and cuts to refugees, disability oppression, lack of childcare and pay equity, homophobia and transphobia, defunding of women's groups nationally and internationally, and threats to abortion rights.
Motion 408 ignores all this systemic discrimination, erodes women's reproductive choice, scapegoates the South Asian community, and then has the audacity of accusing opponents of the motion of "discrimination." But the incessant claims of "not wanting to open the abortion debate," while chipping away at choice through deceptive motions demonstrates the Conservatives are not confident to openly confront the pro-choice majority.
Challenging Motion 408 provides the opportunity to clarify the reality of abortion in Canada, expose the consequences of restricting choice, and defend and expand abortion rights through the broader context of reproductive justice.
Anjali Kulkarni is a member of Medical Students for Choice, Melissa Graham is an organizer of Toronto Disability Pride March and speaker at the recent Day of Action for Reproductive Justice, and Jesse McLaren is a member of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics.
Photo: Jenn Farr / flickr