On Sept 21 (3 days from today) Motion 312, a private member’s bill in the Parliament of Canada will be debated. The stated purpose of the motion is to establish a Parliamentary committee to determine what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is, or is not, a human being before the moment of complete birth? The motion is being put forward by Stephen Woodworth Member of Parliament for Kitchener Centre.
Woodworth’s stance is that the establishment of the committee would not affect the current state of abortion access in this country. In this he is correct. However, there is no doubt, that with the wording he proposes, the end goal is to limit the reproductive rights of women.
In Canada, abortion, while technically a viable and legitimate treatment option, is not equally accessible for all women.
From a 2008 Parliamentary report on Abortion Services in Canada, entitled Abortion Services in Canada 20 Years After R. v Morgentaler
Canadian women face limited and increasingly unequal access to abortion services – even though most legal barriers to such services have been removed.
The reality of current access to abortion services in Canada, … is located in a gap formed between legal declarations of rights and the extent of health services provisions. … access to abortion services has been in decline since the early 1990s due to shrinking health-care services, numbers of providers and some legal constraints that typically cover facilities‟ funding.
Part of the problem of accessibility is related to the competing jurisdictional control of certain health care services. While most decisions fall under provincial jurisdictions, especially in the determination of procedures covered under provincial care plans, the Federal government has control over other aspects, such as ensuring universality of coverage. The Federal government also has the power to earmark certain transfers for specific purposes, although in recent years, there have been fewer and fewer such restrictions.
The authors reference another report Reality Check: A Close Look at Accessing Abortion Services in Canadian Hospitals:
The author of the study found that only one in six hospitals in Canada was currently offering abortion services, and that those hospitals were “poorly” distributed across Canada: the majority were located in urban areas, within 150 kilometres of the US border. Furthermore, she found that the process that a woman had to go through in order to obtain an abortion varied greatly across provinces and territories, while wait-times (as long as 6 weeks), gestational limits (ranging from 10 to 22 weeks), and the availability of counselling also varied drastically from one hospital to the next.
The authors of the Reality Check paper discusses some of the barriers to access despite the fact that abortion is a relatively sim0ple procedure and any hospital with an obstetrics ward can easily perform the service.
Some of the key barriers identified were:
the costs involved, particularly when women were required to travel outside their area of residence or to turn to private clinics; difficulty in obtaining information from hospital staff or referrals from doctors; and the presence of pro-life organizations that present themselves as “crisis pregnancy centres”.
Currently, PEI is the only province in which no abortions are performed, women must be referred to Nova Scotia hospitals,. This requires both the signature of a physician and the approval of the Province for provincial funds to be used. This approval will only be given for procedure performed in hospitals, not in private clinics.
In New Brunswick, to be covered by provincial health insurance, an abortion must be performed before 12 weeks‟ gestation, in a hospital, by a gynaecologist, and be approved by two physicians, who must certify in writing that the abortion is “medically necessary.”
On the other hand, Quebec and British Columbia provide both the services for the procedure and protection for the patients.
According to Joyce Arthur, coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, again quoted in the Abortion Services in Canada paper,
Only 0.3% of abortions occur after 20 weeks gestation, almost all because of serious fetal or maternal health problems.” Furthermore, she noted that 90% of abortions occur within the first trimester and that “[o]ne reason that some women need second-trimester abortions is because they were unable to access first-trimester abortions.” Accordingly, the solution she proposed was to expand access to abortion services in the first trimester.
In conclusion, the report states that the number of abortions has fallen in Canada, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to the number of overall pregnancies.
From a total of 106,418 induced abortions performed in both hospitals and clinics in 2001, there was a decrease in each of the following years, down to 96,815 in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available. While it might be tempting to dismiss the drop in the number of abortions as a manifestation of a lower number of pregnancies, the ratio of induced abortions per 100 live births has also been decreasing, from 31.9 in 2001 to 28.3 in 2005.
Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) reports that 95,755 abortions were performed in 2009.
We can speculate on a number of reasons for this trend. Improved access to sex eduction and contraception may lead to a decrease in the number of unwanted pregnancies. The barriers that are in place that result in extra steps or delays may be dissuading women from proceeding. The costs of travel or the need for extra funds for private clinics may also be factors. Varying rates of pregnancies among differing ethnic and/or religious groups may also account for some of the decrease.
It is obvious from these figures and reports that barriers do exist for women who need access to abortion services, especially in PEI and New Brunswick. As with most aspects of health care, the barriers disproportionately affect low income women. With Atlantic Canada consistently at the lower end of median incomes, the impact is greater here.
Of course, politicians are loathe to open the abortion debate, whether or not they agree with the current discriminatory policies. The majority of elections are decided by a relatively small number of swing voters and a divisive issue such as abortion is usually ignored as much as possible. On the other hand, some politicians, such as Stephen Woodworth are driven by an ideology that belittles the rights of women, and will continue to push their agenda.
There is increasing community support here in Atlantic Canada to support the rights of women to equality in care. On PEI, the debate was rekindled in 2001 by a The PEI Reproductive Rights Organization who brought the issue to the forefront again.
Now, a Nova Scotia group Maritime Abortion Support Services (MASS) is offering transportation and information services for women in rural Nova Scotia and PEI.
[Shannon] Hardy is the founder of Maritime Abortion Support Services (MASS), which offers free rides, couches to crash on (breakfast included!), and informal consultations with women who have had abortions in the past and can tell patients what to expect. One volunteer will even pick up women from the Prince Edward Island ferry in Caribou and drive them to the city and back.
“If you need something,” Hardy says, “we can find a volunteer to do it.”
MASS can be contacted on their Facebook page.