The “pro-woman pro-life” movement is maybe the most startling line of argumentation I have come across in the attack on reproductive rights. Anti-choice associations are attempting to create an argument that suggests they are supporting women. Associations such as the Toronto Right to Life and ProWomanProLife claim that abortion causes psychological and physical harm to women, and that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is only made under the guise of misinformation. An uninformed choice, they argue, is no real choice. The irony in this statement, however, is the fact that the “evidence” anti-choice associations rely on is based on misinformation itself. 

Abortion does not cause any greater physical risk to a woman or transgender person than getting an IUD inserted. The psychological risk has been found to be dependant on the woman’s wishes for her pregnancy. If she loses a pregnancy that is wanted, she could suffer from depression. If she is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, the psychological harm is likely to be greater than if she were able to terminate the pregnancy. More than this, however, the “pro-woman, pro-life” stance completely disregards evidence of women’s wellbeing when abortion access is restricted. 

The physical and psychological toll that abortion restrictions can have on women is far greater than having an abortion. Muriel, in the book No Choice: Canadian Women Tell Their Stories of Illegal Abortion, relays the story of an illegal abortion she had in 1947 in Vancouver, where the man who terminated her pregnancy was not a medical professional, drank before the procedure and tried to assault her. Natalie was assaulted by a backstreet abortionist when she underwent the procedure in 1956.  

Dr. Garson Romalis in his speech to the Morgentaler Symposium in Toronto in 2008 described his residency on a septic obstetrics ward as the motivation for his entrance into abortion services. He explains that while abortion was illegal, the ward would receive between 10 and 30 patients every day, many of whom suffered from complications due to backstreet procedures. One patient in particular was a woman who used slippery elm to end her pregnancy and ended up contracting gangrene throughout her body, ultimately leading to her death.  

An indication of what Canada would be like if abortion was criminalized comes from 1990, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to restrict abortion access through Bill C-43. The bill had passed in Parliament but had yet to pass the Senate when a woman was found dead from a self-induced miscarriage. This was the first officially reported death from self-induced abortion in Canada since 1974

I bring up these stories to demonstrate the fact that abortion will continue to be practised with or without the threat of criminalization, and many women will die without access to safe and legal abortion services. Countless stories exist of women dying or being admitted to hospital after trying to end their own pregnancies. Restricting abortion does not help women. It causes women to put themselves in dangerous situations that can ultimately lead to death. 

To say that “pro-life is pro-woman” is a grave misstep. Not only does the phrase exclude gender non-conforming people, but it also ignores that each person faces different life experiences, with a unique set of problems that influence their decision on whether or not to carry out a pregnancy. To disregard abuse, socioeconomic status and the danger that unregulated health services pose is to ignore factors that affect a person’s well-being and ability to carry a pregnancy or raise a child in the first place. 

I have focused on the physical harm that abortion causes women because these stories provide a greater human element to the need for legal, safe abortion than most statistical studies. The “pro-woman pro-life” rhetoric does not truly take peoples’ well-being into consideration. We should question claims by anti-choice associations surrounding women’s health and welfare when choice is restricted. To truly understand an issue that affects so many people around the world, it is imperative to understand the experiences of those who face it. A comparison of two resources, No Choice: Canadian Women Tell Their Stories of Illegal Abortion (experiences when the procedure was illegal), and Shout Your Abortion (stories of those who terminated a pregnancy after the procedure was decriminalized), truly demonstrates the effect that access to abortion services have for our safety and well-being. 

A feeling of desperation comes over me when I see anti-choice rhetoric that suggests these associations care about women. To truly care about women’s rights means recognizing the harmful effects that the criminalization of abortion can have on women and transgender people throughout the world. 

Olivia De Brabandere completed her first MA in classical history at Queen’s University where her research focused on attitudes toward abortion in ancient and medieval societies. She is currently an MA student in the Indigenous and Canadian Studies program at Trent University, where she hopes to continue her research with a focus on abortion services in Canada. She is passionate about women’s sexual health and rights and believes that understanding historical and societal beliefs is the first step towards making change. Viewpoint: Reproductive Justice is a blog by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

Image: jan zuppinger/Flickr