Today, September 28, marks the International Day of Action for the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion, an effort for organizations to campaign for women’s reproductive rights worldwide. The movement began with the struggle to address the public health crisis of unsafe abortions in Latin America before spreading to include countries and organizations across the globe. This year’s action holds even greater meaning for Canada since it falls on the very same week that Motion 312, which sought to re-open the abortion debate in Canada, was struck down in Ottawa.
Now, since some of you reading this probably think you are experiencing a horrifying case of déjà vu, allow me to clarify exactly what that last sentence means. On April 26, 2012, parliament debated a motion introduced by Conservative MP, Stephen Woodworth. Motion 312 sought to appoint a special committee to review the section of the Criminal Code that states that a fetus becomes a child only after complete birth. While the rhetoric of Woodworth’s motion may try to frame the issue as a “medical evidence” seeking mission focusing on the definition of what constitutes a human being, many Canadians were not fooled by the thinly-veiled attempt to re-open the debate on women’s right to abortion.
According to Woodworth, “the current law dehumanizes and excludes an entire class of people”. That’s interesting. I would think that taking away a woman’s basic right to choose what to do with her own body would dehumanize and exclude about half the population in Canada. You know, that half that can ACTUALLY GET PREGNANT.
Immigration Minister and prominent Conservative MP, Jason Kenney, also voted for the motion stating before the vote took place that he believes, “we can have a respectful debate” on the issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted against the motion although it has already been pointed out that allowing M-312 to be tabled at all goes against his promise that he would open the abortion debate. Essentially, all it does is shift the blame from himself while giving his Conservative MP’s the chance to vote the motion in.
So, it appears these privileged white men really believe they know what’s best for women’s bodies. Cue the collective groan of feminists everywhere.
For many, this back-door attempt to re-open the abortion debate stirs up memories of the hard-fought battle it took to legalize abortion in Canada in the first place. Let’s recap. In 1969 Pierre Trudeau’s government became the first one in Canada to legalize abortion for some women, under certain circumstances. Women had to present their case before a panel of mostly male doctors who would determine whether or not her request for abortion was “medically necessary”. This ruling presented obvious flaws since it defined the terms of what constitutes a “legitimate reason” for wanting an abortion in medical terms and failed to address the reality that many women choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy for a myriad of reasons. Reasons such as, inadequate finances, not being ready for the responsibility, having a problematic or abusive relationship with the father, feeling too young, health problems, or maybe just plain not wanting to be pregnant.
Women were granted full legal access to abortion by the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark ruling of Roe vs. Morgentaler in 1988 which states that, “the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.” In other words, the government has absolutely no say on what women decide to do regarding their bodies. According to Statistics Canada, over 3 million abortions have been performed since the act was first decriminalized in 1969.
M-312 was debated for one hour in parliament last Friday and MP’s voted on the motion on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. The motion was denied with a vote of 203-91, meaning that Canada’s Criminal Code, which currently states that life begins at the moment of complete birth, will stand as it should; unchanged.
This victory can be attributed to a number of women’s groups and human rights activists who rallied against M-312 to safeguard women’s right to choose. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada released this statement condemning the motion and have since called for the resignation of Conservative MP, Rona Ambrose, as Minister for the Status of Women after she voted in favour of the motion on Wednesday. Radical Handmaids, so named after Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, have been petitioning and protesting the motion since its introduction in April. On Wednesday, the group took to Parliament Hill adorned in red capes and white hats while MP’s voted in the House of Commons. Leadnow, a democracy-seeking public advocacy group, raised money to place this ad for MP’s to see in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen on the morning of the vote.
Despite the victory for women’s reproductive rights in Canada this week, the fact that Motion 312 was even introduced proves that this fight is not over. While abortions are covered by healthcare in most provinces, many women living in rural areas of the country struggle to safely access abortion. In Yukon, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories abortion clinics are not among the services offered. Not to mention the women living in Prince Edward Island do not have any access to safe abortions. Furthermore, as the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion highlights, our sisters’ across the world still face tremendous obstacles for autonomy over their bodies and their right to choose abortion. For countless women the battle for fair reproductive rights is not over. In fact, for many it is just beginning.
The state of abortion rights in countries outside of Canada can be summarized in this brief statement from the GCDA’s website:
Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic continue to uphold the complete ban on abortion in any circumstances, even if it is necessary to save the life of the woman. Currently in Colombia 99% of abortions performed in the country remain illegal and occur in unsafe conditions despite Colombia’s 2006 Constitutional Court ruling that legalised abortion in certain circumstances. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion restrictions in Europe and continues to run the risk of instigating a complete ban on abortion in all circumstances due to increasing conservative pressure.
According to an article written for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the estimated number of women worldwide who die from unsafe or so-called back-alley abortions is 68,000, while related injuries are around 8 million. It is no surprise that most of these numbers come from the more poverty-stricken areas of the world in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. In Canada, before the legalization of abortion, it is estimated that around 4,000-6,000 women died between 1926 and 1947.
So the basic facts stand as follows; even if women do not have access to legal and safe abortions, guess what, THEY ARE STILL GOING TO DO IT. Women are willing to risk their own lives in unsafe conditions to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. We know this has happened here and is happening in other areas of the world. It is now more important than ever to recognize the struggles of women everywhere as we continue fighting for our right to abortion. The lives of women depend on it.
For more information and to take action with the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion visit http://www.september28.org/.
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