Jan. 23, 2008 - Issue #640: No Access, No Choice
NO ACCESS, NO CHOICE
In 1983, political activist Judy Rebick became the unintended victim of assault when a man brandishing garden shears lunged at Dr Henry Morgentaler at the opening of his Toronto abortion clinic. She blocked the attack and Dr Morgentaler emerged unscathed, but the incident is just one of several threats Rebick has endured because of her involvement in the pro-choice movement.
Despite it all, Rebick refused to be intimidated in the debate that continues to elicit contention to this day.
“I learned a lot from Dr Morgentaler, because he’d gone to jail—he almost died in jail. He was constantly a target of attack, constantly a target of threats and so on, and his attitude was, if you do this work this is part of the price you pay,” Rebick said.
Rebick was part of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, the group that encouraged and helped Dr Morgentaler open his Toronto clinic.
“It’s probably one of the proudest things I’ve done in my life. There is a certain amount of courage involved, but it was also such a splendid victory,” said Rebick. “When we started, everyone was against us—the courts were against us, the cops, the government. It was really a magnificent battle.”
In 1969, Dr Morgentaler broke the law to open Canada’s first abortion clinic in Montréal, becoming one of the country’s most controversial figures. But it was only after police raided his newly-opened Toronto clinic in 1983 that he became the central figure in an historic case that paved the way for reproductive rights in Canada.
Before the decision, abortion was only legal in a hospital, and only if approved by a three-doctor therapeutic abortion committee. But on Jan 28, 1988, the Supreme Court struck down that law as unconstitutional, ruling that it infringed upon a woman's right to “life, liberty and security of person.”
But 20 years after the lifting of federal legal restrictions on abortion, women across the country still face significant challenges in accessing the procedure.
Patricia Larue, executive director of Canadians for Choice, a non-profit charitable organization based out of Ottawa, explained that abortion services in Canada are concentrated in urban areas, forcing many women to travel great distances to gain access to the procedure.
“Most of the places that offer abortion services—clinics or hospitals—are located in the south of the country, about 100 kilometres north of the American border. So for women living in the north, or even central Canada, it’s really difficult to have access to a place where they can go for an abortion,” Larue said.
Edmonton is the sixth largest metropolitan region in Canada, with a population of over one million, but there’s only one abortion clinic in the area. In May 2005, the Royal Alexandra Hospital stopped performing the procedure, leaving the Edmonton Morgentaler Clinic with the brunt of the responsibility in northern Alberta. Dr Christa Delacruz, who operates out of Grande Prairie, also provides abortions, but access outside of the major urban centres of Edmonton and Calgary is extremely limited.
Larry Brockman, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Edmonton, explained that having a single abortion provider in Edmonton can cause a backlog, increasing wait times for women seeking the service. He said the single point of access can also allow anti-abortion groups to concentrate their efforts.
“There is from time to time, lobbying or civil action that takes place that attempts to block access of women to abortion,” Brockman said. “It’s a concern that now it’s reduced to one site—it’s a little easier for protest groups to focus on one site.”
Corrie Mekar works on the front lines at Planned Parenthood Edmonton, dealing directly with women who are considering an abortion. She said the recent surge in population, coupled with the single point of access, is causing a strain on abortion services in Edmonton.
“You can kind of talk about abortion in terms of every other type of service that’s out here in Edmonton right now, with the influx of people coming in,” Mekar said. “Our population has exploded because of the economic boom, and because of that I think they’re having trouble with health everywhere, and this is no different.”
Since Jul 1, 1996, all abortion fees in Alberta are covered for any woman with Alberta Health Care or Saskatchewan Health Care coverage. But Brockman explained that women from other Canadian provinces sometimes face challenges with coverage in Alberta, while recent immigrants are left to foot the bill on their own.
Howard May, spokesperson for Alberta Health and Wellness, explained that Alberta Health Care covers the doctor’s fees and hospital costs of medically required abortion outside the province, but won’t cover the facility fee if the abortion is done in a private clinic. He said that under federal legislation, abortions are not included in the multi-province reciprocal billing agreement.
“The rationale behind the exclusion from the reciprocal agreements is that provinces and territories have different rules and regulations regarding the coverage of abortions,” said May. “Some will only cover the costs if the abortion is provided in a hospital. Others require the recommendation of two physicians.”
The cost of an abortion at the Edmonton Morgentaler Clinic ranges from $400 to $800, depending on how far along a woman is in her pregnancy.
Aside from actual access, Mekar said that accessing accurate information about abortion can also be a challenge. While there are a host of centres that offer women with an unwanted pregnancy guidance on abortion alternatives, Planned Parenthood Edmonton is the only service in Edmonton that guides women through all three options—parenting, adoption, or abortion—supporting them equally in each.
“For me in the counselling room, it’s mostly about the isolation that women feel. They think that they’re the only ones that have ever gone through it. They feel like nobody else they know has even ever considered, or had an unplanned pregnancy even,” Mekar said.
Statistics Canada reports that in 2004 there were 100 039 induced abortions in Canada, including 11 098 abortions in Alberta alone. The data excludes induced abortions performed in Manitoba clinics because it was unavailable.
Mekar went on to explain that part of her job includes deconstructing myths about abortion. At the root of the problem is what are generally known as “crisis pregnancy centres.” They go by many different names, but these agencies are all united in their goal to stop women from having abortions.
Mekar said that many women are misled into thinking that a crisis pregnancy centre will offer them non-judgmental advice.
“It’s not really representative of what’s going to happen,” Mekar said. “They get in and, you know, see a picture of the Pope on the wall, and crosses hanging everywhere, and then being forced to watch a video that is completely false and inaccurate, and then having pregnancy tests results delayed or being lied to about the results—it’s not okay. It’s just very unethical.”
Larue said that accessing factual information about abortion is an ongoing barrier to women, especially those who seek counselling from a crisis pregnancy centre.
“Some groups at least call themselves the pro-life centre, so at least you’ll know that you’re calling a pro-life centre, but in other centres they’re hiding the fact that they refuse to refer abortions. Instead of saying, ‘We don’t talk about abortions,’ or, ‘We don’t agree with it,’ they’ll give inaccurate information just to influence a decision,” Larue said. “Many times they’ll say that abortion leads to breast cancer, or they’ll say you’ll be infertile if you have an abortion.
Mekar acknowledged that there are physical risks associated with abortion, as with any medical procedure, but said that crisis pregnancy centres exaggerate the possibility of complications.
“The interesting thing to me, working here for 13 years, is nobody ever sits down and asks me what are the risks of pregnancy and delivery—nobody ever does. Women do it every day, everything’s fine, you kind of move on, but actually, statistically, it’s less of a risk to access abortion than to continue with a pregnancy,” Mekar said. V
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