New pro-choice coalition vows to improve access

“With an election around the corner, the public needs to know that about 70 per cent of the Conservative Party caucus is on public record with an anti-abortion stance.”

Pro-choice groups across the country have come together to form a new coalition and ensure that abortion rights will remain protected in Canada. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada / Coalition pour le Droit à l'Avortement au Canada (ARCC-CDAC) will work to improve access to abortion and increase the number of abortion providers.

“Abortion is often considered a settled issue in Canada, but it is still politicized and that impedes access,” according to ARCC-CDAC. For example, even though all provinces and territories have deemed abortion to be a “medically required” service under the Canada Health Act, some provinces still do not meet any of the five principles of the Act when it comes to abortion services: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility. This makes abortion difficult for many women, especially those in rural or conservative areas, low-income women, and other disadvantaged women.

Here are some highlights of the abortion access problems that Canadian women still face:

  • Every year, at least 9,000 women pay out-of-pocket for their abortions in violation of the Canada Health Act. Two provinces (New Brunswick and Quebec) do not fully fund abortions at all clinics. But no woman should have to pay for an abortion.
  • Fewer than one in five Canadian hospitals provide abortion services, even though it's a common and simple medical procedure. Hospitals that do provide abortions may enforce restrictive policies such as 12-week gestational limits or requiring a doctor's referral. Hospitals often have long waiting lists.
  • There is a persistent shortage of doctors able or willing to perform abortions, partly because medical school training in abortion is inadequate or unavailable, and partly out of stigma and fear. Canadian medical schools spend an average of less than one hour discussing abortion during the four-year curriculum. First-trimester surgical abortion techniques are discussed in only half of Canada's medical schools.

“With a federal election around the corner, the public needs to know that about 70 per cent of the Conservative Party caucus is on public record with an anti-abortion stance,” said Carolyn Egan, a Toronto spokesperson for ARCC-CDAC. These MPs have used their official position to introduce or support private member's bills to restrict abortion, make appearances at anti-abortion events, speak out publicly against abortion, or otherwise publicize their anti-abortion stance.

In comparison, only 12 per cent of the Liberal caucus is publicly anti-choice, while no MPs of the Bloc Quebecois or NDP are known to be anti-choice.

“We want to make sure that Conservatives don't try to impose their anti-choice ideology on all Canadian women,” said Egan. “We must never go back to the old days of unconstitutional restrictions on women's reproductive freedom.”

The anti-choice movement in Canada is still strong and active, with a large base of supporters and organizational resources that far exceed those of the pro-choice movement. Anti-choice activists remain committed to various campaigns, such as working to de-fund abortion, spreading misinformation about abortion (such as the myth that abortion causes breast cancer), and promoting policies and laws to restrict abortion or make it harder to access.

Although no serious violence has occurred against Canadian abortion clinics or providers since 2000, picketing and various forms of low-level harassment continue, and all those involved with abortion provision remain on constant alert for potential violence. ARCC-CDAC will work to oppose the efforts of the anti-choice movement and protect providers.

ARCC-CDAC is now the only nation-wide political pro-choice group devoted to ensuring abortion rights and access for women. The Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) disbanded in August of this year. Through its more than 30 years of existence, CARAL campaigned to raise awareness about the need for legal abortion on request. It supported Dr. Henry Morgentaler through his extended court battles all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally declared Canada's abortion law unconstitutional in 1988.

Because CARAL had fulfilled its mission to repeal abortion laws and turn abortion into a basic right for Canadian women, it decided to close its doors. “We're grateful for everything CARAL has accomplished over the past 30 years and we hope to build on it,” said Judy Burwell, a Fredericton spokesperson for ARCC-CDAC.

“It's important to have national coordination to improve access to abortion, so ARCC-CDAC is proud to have many active supporters across Canada,” said Burwell.

Some members of the new coalition include: the BC Pro-Choice Action Network, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, Le Collectif pour le Libre Choix, Fédération du Québec pour le planning des naissances, Catholics for a Free Choice, Planned Parenthood Alberta, abortion clinics across Canada, and many other groups and individuals.

To improve access to abortion across Canada, ARCC-CDAC plans to work towards:

  • obtaining full medicare funding for abortion clinics (in provinces that are still violating the Canada Health Act)
  • improving hospital access to abortion across Canada
  • increasing the number of abortion providers and expanding training opportunities for abortion
  • removing abortion from the list of excluded services for purposes of reciprocal billing between provinces (so women moving to another province can have their abortions paid for by medicare)

ARCC-CDAC was officially launched with successful press conferences in Ottawa on October 19 at the Parliamentary Press Gallery, and in Montreal in French on October 20.

Supporting speakers in Ottawa included:

  • Jean Crowder, MP, NDP Women's Critic
  • Dr. Vyta Senikas, Associate Executive Vice-President, Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, Ottawa
  • Joyce Arthur, Pro-Choice Action Network, Vancouver
  • Carolyn Egan, Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, Toronto
  • Jessica Squires, Carleton Students for Choice, Ottawa
  • Joan Wright, Morgentaler Clinic, Ottawa

And in Montreal:

  • Catherine Megill, ARCC-CDAC, Montreal
  • Monika Dunn, Fédération du Québec pour le planning des naissances, Montreal
  • Johanne Bilodeau, Le Collectif pour le Libre Choix, Sherbrooke

The formation of ARCC-CDAC was first conceived and initiated in November 2004 by the Pro-Choice Action Network in Vancouver. It is an independent group, however, and is not formally affiliated with any other pro-choice group. It is currently led by a Steering Committee of pro-choice leaders and clinic directors across Canada. It operates in both official languages.

It is a political advocacy group, not a charitable group and will soon become an official non-profit society.

Currently there is no paid staff, office or phone. It is a “virtual” organization with volunteers working out of their homes. Communications and activities are done by listserv, email, and internet (and by telephone for screened “activist” members). Members will be able to attend annual general meetings through internet teleconferencing.

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