every mother a willing mother, every child a wanted child.... some day.

Until I moved to parts (further) East last year, I always viewed contention and debate surrounding the legality of abortion in Canada as somewhat akin to the flogging of dead livestock.

Abortion was decriminalized way back in 1988 after the Supreme Court of Canada had, in its infinite wisdom, declared criminal restrictions on access to abortion unconstitutional under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as they directly infringe upon a woman’s s.7 right not to be deprived of life, liberty, and security of the person.

Framed in the language of human rights, a woman’s right to choose whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy wasn’t going to be taken away any time soon, as far as I could tell, and so the debates and protests (and those offensive, inaccurate and misleading pro-life posters gracing the bus shelters outside Morgentaler clinics) were an exercise in ridiculousness. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that folks should ever stop engaging in rational debate or logical ranting sessions (how else would I justify my existence? How else would we keep our brains svelte and shiny?), but did anyone really think that any government would have the stones to re-write the Constitution to exclude women as deserving of security, life and liberty? Did that old man (by pure chromosomal slip incapable of ever having to cope with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy of his own) with the megaphone and the sandwich board depicting an aborted fetus seriously think that marching around Parliament Hill at noon would cause the government to snap and, 20 years later, force the SCC to revisit their decision? It seemed pretty clear that threats to the right to access abortion were only so much toothless growling used to intimidate women already faced with difficult decisions.

But then I moved to New Brunswick, and enter ridiculousness.

In Ontario, where I’m from, abortion is (rightfully – check out the latest WHO stats on worldwide unsafe abortions and mortality rates) classed as a medically necessary procedure (as it is in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec (in-hospital), and Newfoundland) and thus covered under the provincial health insurance plan. The procedure is performed in a number of public hospitals in the province as well as (at last count) eight private clinics, at no charge to the patient, in compliance with the Canada Health Act. While by no means perfect – a large number of Ontario hospitals equipped to provide abortions do not do so – Ontario at least respects its mandate of providing these services as a part of its duty to public, comprehensive, universal, portable, and accessible health care.

In New Brunswick, public health insurance will only pay for a woman’s abortion if it’s performed in a hospital by a certified gynaecologist. Oh, and the woman will need to provide testimonials from two physicians who believe that the procedure is medically necessary. Only two of New Brunswick’s 28 hospitals provide abortion services. The only other option for a woman looking to terminate a pregnancy is to visit the one lonely Morgantaler clinic in the province (in Fredericton), on her own dime, to the tune of approximately $550 - $750.

[If you think that’s the worst of it, check out Prince Edward Island. On PEI, the government decided, and still stands by its decision, that no abortions would be performed on the Island. Islanders have to travel out of province, at their own expense, if they want to terminate a pregnancy (unless the abortion is declared medically necessary, and pre-authorized and approved by the government). To make matters worse, the PEI Abortion Information Line, to assist Islanders seeking abortion information and resources, closed down at the beginning of the year due to lack of funding. And don’t even get me started on Nunavut – that such a remote territory would deny its people abortion access is something else altogether.]

Having not grown up under a rock (I guess majoring in human rights and law in university didn’t hurt, either), I was not so blissfully naïve as to assume that everyone enjoyed the same access to all rights across the country. While everyone in Canada is equal before and under the law (ahem, how is it the Indian Act has survived the Charter? I’ll save everything that’s wrong with this offensive, damaging, and debilitating piece of legislation for another epic post) well … to paraphrase the oft-quoted Mr. Orwell - some folks are just a hell of a lot more equal than others.

All this long, rambling introduction to say that while I sure as hell am not big on borders and nationalism, choosing to spend Canada Day puttering in my garden and reading in my yard rather than getting liquored and wrapping myself in flags with the rest of the young’uns, this year I had reason to pour myself some rye and toast a national hero. Had I still been living in Ottawa on July 1st of this year when Governor General Michaëlle Jean appointed Dr. Henry Morgentaler as a Member of the Order of Canada, I would have celebrated, yes. But perhaps not as, um, emotionally as I did in my adoptive Maritime home. I told myself I was girding up for the inevitable fallout I would be forced to slog through over the next weeks and months. Gathering liquid strength, if you will.

See, had I still been living in Ottawa, not knowing all the depressing facts I now know about the state of abortion access in the Maritime provinces, I could open the newpapers every morning, read through all the innumerable articles and letters denouncing the appointment and insulting one of my heroes, and chuckle about all the silly pro-lifers out there who are still under the illusion that a woman’s right to reproductive choice is up for debate. I could read through all the positive reactions to the appointment and feel pretty good about being a Canadian. I could revel in the fact that 3 out of 5 of those who share this country with me are in support Dr. Morgentaler’s appointment.

Being so entrenched in the women’s equality movement in the Maritimes, and learning all I’ve learned, I have lost this luxury. Where a right is not freely enjoyed by all due to barriers to access experienced by any, there is no enjoyment of the right. The right becomes formal rather than substantive. At the risk of spinning in philosophical circles - a freedom from prosecution for seeking enjoyment of the right when one has not the means, or indeed must provide the means oneself, to actualize the enjoyment of said right is not actual enjoyment. And so instead of a self-satisfied grin, a raised glass, and little attention paid to the negative backlash, I instead find myself clenching my jaw, fists balled, steeling myself for further actions which need to be taken to ensure equitable access to abortion for all women across Canada.

We, like most countries, have a terrible habit of recognizing our society’s more controversial champions only after they are long dead (ahem, Manitoba introduced Louis Riel day in … 2008?) and so I’m thrilled to see Dr. Morgentaler honoured during his lifetime for everything he’s accomplished, and the sacrifices he’s made, as a militant ally in the women’s struggle for control over our bodies. And if there’s anywhere in this country where women need to rejoice in the positive reinforcement for our fight that this honour brings, it’s the Maritimes. It is a reminder that we can not be complacent or we are complicit in our own oppression. By standing in support of the Good Doctor, and applauding the Order’s Advisory Council for their choice in appointing him, we not only recognize the great distance we have come but also the lengths still to go until we can say, without reservation, that in our country every mother is a willing mother and every child is a wanted child.


kittee said...

thanks for this good read. the guy i live with has a romantic notion that canada is the land of political perfection with free health insurance spooned into your mouth between delicate chomps of delicious homemade oatmeal and blueberries.


- L said...


happy to oblige!

yeah, we're by no means politically perfect (ahem, conservative federal gov't at the moment) and while we do have a pretty comprehensive health care system, there are some weak points (which i will never stop whining/ranting about....).

but oh! the blueberries are fantastic, and i make some mean oatmeal, in case you and Dazee ever feel like visiting Lands North.

VeganCowGirl said...

Yes m'am! Excellent post.
Western Uni back in Ont just honoured him with a doctorate...loads of people were against it...unreal. Again, thanks for the great post, good luck with the east.