Canada’s abortion battle legally ended in 1988 when the Supreme Court ruled that women had dominion over their own bodies. Abortion became a woman’s choice.
But ever since, the provincial anti-abortionists have continued their mean, small-time work by targeting working-class women. Thus, the problem for Canadian women is not abortion rights, it is access to abortion. And New Brunswick has become a tragedy in this respect.
Fredericton is an attractive capital city of just over 50,000 on the shores of the St. John River. The well-kept, beautifully painted big clapboard houses along the shore with their wraparound decks and intricate woodwork make the place seem healthy, wealthy and immensely appealing. The University of New Brunswick has a campus here and the presence of so many young people gives the city its energy.
But in 1989, the New Brunswick government, furious that women couldn’t be denied abortions, made sure that women could not get timely access to publicly funded abortions and that poverty-stricken women couldn’t get abortions at all. They set up regulations (thus bypassing the legislature and voters) saying hospital abortions had to be performed by a gynecologist, although the procedure is easily performed by a non-specialist. The abortion had to be approved by the gynecologist and one other doctor. Abortions in clinics would not be covered by Canadian health care (this is illegal).
Since almost no New Brunswick hospitals perform abortions anyway, women must discover their pregnancy very early, find a local doctor who’ll refer them (difficult), and travel to a city to find another doctor to sign for them (expensive), and then book the operation (sometimes cancelled and impossible to rebook).
She must then go to the Morgentaler Clinic and pay for her abortion. Anti-abortionists bought the house next to the Fredericton clinic, where they try to lure women to change their minds, terrifying them with misleading photographs and false information.
When she escapes these people, she will get her abortion and then make her way home, often shamed and traumatized for what is a perfectly simple procedure elsewhere in Canada (except in P.E.I., where abortions are unavailable).
Fredericton citizens often see Liberal Premier Shawn Graham around town. He is 38, but he looks 16. This is the man who has followed his predecessors in maintaining the obstacle course for pregnant women. Note that because these abortion rules are minor regulations passed by cabinet, they aren’t approved by the legislature. Voters have no say. This is just a little act of cruelty by a cabal, and it could end next week if New Brunswickers made enough of a fuss.
They are starting to. This month, I spoke at a gathering sponsored by the Faculty of Law at the University of New Brunswick, Law Students for Choice, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and other groups. Law school dean Philip Bryden, a distinguished lawyer, moderated a panel where a nurse, a law professor and a physician all spoke passionately about the mistreatment of women seeking abortions.
I had expected 25 students to show up. Instead there were 290 people, not all of them students, and they overflowed into other rooms as the discussion went on. It was wonderful to hear Prof. Marilyn Merritt-Gray from the Faculty of Nursing, because medical matters are usually left to god-like doctors, not mere nurses. It was illuminating to hear law professor Jula Hughes remark how often one hears the word “shame” in anti-abortion circles. Women are shamed for their fertility, for their sexuality. It hadn’t struck me before. I wonder how many girls and women internalize this “shame” that can turn to self-loathing.
A Frederictonian in the audience, who introduced himself to me later as Eric Wright, stood and addressed himself to anti-choice males: “If you guys are so opposed to abortions, don’t have one.”
I had to laugh. It really is that simple. It’s not your business.
The Morgentaler Clinic has sued the provincial government, and its court case will begin May 16. At the moment, the young premier’s lawyers are arguing that since Henry Morgentaler is not a woman, he should have no standing in the case. It’s difficult to find a local woman willing to go to court, so Dr. Morgentaler, 84-year-old former prisoner of both the Nazis and the Canadian government, has stepped forward once again.
The problem has spread across Canada. Since 2003, the percentage of hospitals offering abortions has decreased from 17.8 per cent to 15.9 per cent. That means you only have the opportunity to obtain an abortion at one in every six hospitals.
The same thing is happening in Britain. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists deplores the growing lack of abortion services. There is much less abortion training in teaching hospitals, and many doctors don’t want to perform a task they consider immoral or socially beneath them, the college said. But as one doctor commented, “You can’t deal with contraception without dealing with its failures.”
And abortion rights were dealt a blow last week when the U.S. Supreme Court, voting on political lines, banned late-term abortions. These extremely rare abortions, always performed for the health of the mother, must now be done by a different method that greatly increases risk to the mother’s life.
In the U.S., politicians and lawyers are now making the life-or-death medical decisions once made only by doctors. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision alarming. “In candour, [it is] an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court.”
Women are losing control over their own bodies, in Canada, in Britain and in the U.S. But the Canadian fight back begins in a courtroom in May. In the cabinet room of the New Brunswick Liberals, this could be put right with a mere signature.
I shall now use the word “shame” appropriately. Shame on you, Premier Shawn Graham.
It’s up to you which you buy: Amy Sedaris’s coffee table book I Like You! Hospitality Under the Influence, or the audio version. With the first, you get photographs of wedding cakes made of three kinds of salami, but with talking books you can hear the dementia, the cracked-ness of Sedaris’s damaged characters leaking through. Aren’t I fortunate that I don’t know these people, you think as you drift off to sleep. And suddenly, you realize that you do.
Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, the definitive novel about school shootings thus far, wrote in the Guardian this week that schools are chosen for massacres for a reason. “School and college are where we first distinguish ourselves. But for the majority, they are the site of first humiliation, subjugation and injury. They are almost always our first introduction to brutal social hierarchies, as they may also sponsor our first romantic devastation. What better stage on which to act out primitive retribution?”