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Reproductive justice activists call for equal access to Canadian medical services

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"Without access, there is no real reproductive justice," said Jordana Greenblatt, Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics (OCAC)

It was Saturday morning, two days before the election in New Brunswick, a province that under Regulation 84-20 requires two doctors sign off that an abortion is "medically required" and that it must be performed in a hospital by an OB/GYN.

"This is a major disparity in terms of access. It's a violation of the Canada Health Act which the federal government refuses to enforce. And it is truly shameful."

In Toronto, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) and OCAC held a rally outside Ryerson University as part of a Pan-Canadian Day of Action for Reproductive Justice - Equal Access Now.

Click here to see more photos from the rally and march.

Similar rallies took place in Halifax, Charlottetown, Vancouver, Montreal, and cities across New Brunswick.

"I can't believe that in 2014 we're out here again doing this," said Marie Clarke Walker, Exec VP, Canadian Labour Congress.

"Who the hell is Stephen Harper and his government and the right wing to tell me, my daughter, my granddaughter and you what the hell they can do with their own bodies? It's outright classism and racism (because) we've said to the marginalized women in this country that you can't have what is rightfully yours."

Reproductive justice activists stood in solidarity with women in New Brunswick and P.E.I. calling for the repeal of Regulation 84-20 as well as demanding that the federal government enforce the Canada Health Act which guarantees equal access to medical services to all women across the country.

"Equal access and reproductive justice means (that) maternal health includes abortion, reproductive healthcare for all including refugees, and the right to bear the children we choose with support to raise the children we bear," said the ARCC and the OCAC in their release on September 19.

In July, the Morgentaler Clinic in Frederiction closed its doors. It was the only facility in New Brunswick where women could get an abortion free of restrictions, the only private abortion facility in the Maritimes.

Abortions are performed in two hospitals in the province, but they require that two doctors certify, in writing, that the procedure is medically necessary.

Abortion isn't covered by medicare in New Brunswick unless it is deemed medically necessary and performed by a specialist in an approved hospital.

The Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton charged between $700 and $850 for the procedure and claimed it performed about 60 per cent (about 600 per year) of the abortions in the province. It also subsidized abortions for women who couldn't afford the procedure.

"I'm in shock to be standing here and doing this again in my lifetime," said Wanda Whitebird, No More Silence.

"It's all about male power. They want to be able to legislate who we are as women."

And by doing so, turn back the clock.

In the 1960s, the Liberal government under increasing pressure from various women's and social justice groups was forced to liberalize Canada's abortion law. In 1967, then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau presented a bill that became law in 1969. Abortion was still a crime but women could apply for special permission from a therapeutic abortion committee. 

And then in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that Canada’s abortion law was unconstitutional.

"In theory, my entire life every woman in Canada has had access to abortion," said Anjali Kulkarni, Medical Students for Choice, U of T.

"Unfortunately, that's clearly not the case today. The number of abortion providers in this country are decreasing, in part due to inadequate training and exposure in medical school."

Along with her colleagues, Kulkami lobbied for curriculum changes across the country to include abortion as part of the mandatory medical school curriculum. 

"And I'm proud to say at U of T we were successful."

As a woman with a disability, Melissa Graham said it's not just about having the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

"It's (also) about the choice to be a mother," said Graham, Disability Pride organizer. 

"And on a regular basis seeing that choice being taken away from women quite literally. Children ripped out of their arms at birth. Like all women, women with disabilities fall in love. We get our hearts broken.We may have a miscarriage or a child but we still live in a society that passes judgment over whether we should have those options at all."

Behind the speakers, an enormous coat hanger rested against a boulder at the edge of Lake Devo at Ryerson University, a symbol of the danger of limiting women's access to abortions.

"It's our body and we have the right to decide," said Andria Babbington, VP Toronto & York Region Labour Council.

"They don't decide for us."

Peggy Cooke is a representative with the ARCC and a former employee of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton.

"What are the consequences of requiring the consent of two doctors in a province desperately short on doctors in which most people either have no family doctor or have an anti-choice doctor?" asked Cooke.

"What are the consequences of forcing someone to undergo -- what should be a 10-minute out-patient procedure -- in a hospital losing a potential extra day of work in a province where most people work part-time jobs with no union representation and no protection?"

Upon hearing the news that the Morgentaler Clinic was slated for closure, the OCAC organized a Toronto rally in April in solidarity with New Brunswick and P.E.I. reproductive justice activists.  

"It shone a light so everyone could see this crisis of access because the government would not fund the Clinic," said Michelle Robidoux, OCAC.

With the closure of the Clinic, women will be forced to leave the Maritimes to obtain an abortion. And with less providers and less funding, the government will have gained more control over women’s lives.

"Who is the government to tell any of you what you can do to your own body?" asked Rathika Sitsabaiesan, NDP MP Scarborough-Rouge River.

"Who is the government to tell you that you cannot control and choose what grows or not in your body?"

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