We Need an Abortion Law (but not the kind you think)

By Joyce Arthur

April 2010, The Mark

Canada is the only democratic country in the world with no abortion law.[1] Our Supreme Court struck down the old law in 1988 because it violated women’s rights, and no legal restrictions on abortion have since been enacted (except for an unconstitutional funding restriction in New Brunswick).

Some may feel this situation needs addressing, but any legal restriction on abortion is unnecessary, cruel, and discriminatory. No country has ever prevented abortion by banning or restricting it. Illegal abortion is extremely common, accounting for more than half of all abortions globally. 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion and 8 million are injured, mostly in the developing world. Abortion laws are not only harmful to women’s health, they violate the human rights of women, interfere with medical discretion, and compromise quality of care.

Having no legal restrictions helps integrate abortion care into the healthcare system, facilitate early access, and improve women’s health in general. In Canada, about 90% of abortions are done by 12 weeks and 97% by 16 weeks, a better record than in the U.S., where legal restrictions often delay abortions and increase the medical risk. Canadian women have almost one-third fewer abortions than American women, and only slightly more than in western Europe, which has the lowest abortion rates in the world and mostly liberal laws.

Serious problems remain in Canada, however, because abortion remains politicized. The anti-choice movement relentlessly promotes abortion stigma and shame, as well as restrictions and funding bans. Many clinics experience regular picketing, and providers remain subject to anti-choice harassment and the risk of violence. This stigma and political controversy reduces access – over 80% of hospitals don’t perform abortions, and some that do have restrictive policies around abortion care. It’s difficult for disadvantaged women to access abortion services, and many women must travel long distances to find an abortion provider. Access is also poor in rural and conservative areas, especially the territories, Saskatchewan, and the Maritimes. New Brunswick forces women to pay for abortions at the one clinic in Fredericton in violation of the Canada Health Act. Most medical schools still do not require abortion training, causing a chronic shortage of abortion providers.

One solution to bridge the gap between Canada’s admirable lack of an abortion law and our less-than-admirable access problems, would be to pass a “positive” law that would ensure abortion services for women – without cost, hassle, stigma, or disapproval. Ideally, such a law would include at least these elements:

  • Mandatory education in abortion and contraception for all medical students, and mandatory training in abortion techniques for all Ob/Gyn residents.
  • Guaranteed funding for all abortions whether in hospitals or clinics (along with repeal of the New Brunswick regulation).
  • Requirement for each province and territory to ensure availability of services in each region, and to maintain those services and support providers.
  • Removal of abortion from the “excluded services” list for purposes of reciprocal billing between provinces.
  • Requirement for Health Canada to expedite the approval and availability of mifepristone (RU-486).
  • Limited conscientious objection by doctors – all must refer appropriately if they don’t perform abortions, and all gynecologists should perform legal abortions on request.
  • A federal bubble zone law banning protests outside abortion care facilities, and provider homes and offices.

Canada has a special responsibility to be a role model to the world because we’ve proven that abortion restrictions are completely unnecessary. Our next logical step should be taking a strong stand for women’s rights and equality by guaranteeing access to this vital medical procedure.

Joyce Arthur is the Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (www.arcc-cdac.ca)

[1]  The Australian state of Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory (the ACT) both decriminalized abortion a few years ago. China and North Korea are is the only other county with no abortion restrictions.

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