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The new face of the abortion debate

Two decades after the decriminalization of abortion, pro-choice advocates are still fighting against the stigma of abortion and for better access to services. Meanwhile, women on the pro-life side want the feminist movement to open itself up to their voices, too

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It’s July 2008, a few weeks after the nation appointed Henry Morgentaler to the Order of Canada, and a small band of placard-bearing protesters trudge along the hot sidewalk outside the abortion clinic bearing his name in Fredericton. They are outraged that the man who riveted Canadians as he led the fight to decriminalize abortion has been given one of the country’s highest honours, but that’s not why they have come. They are here because it’s a Tuesday. This is the only day of the week when the clinic has a doctor, who will perform anywhere from a dozen to 15 abortions, most before 11 o’clock in the morning. “Slogans are important,” says Thaddée Renault, who wears a sign on his back that reads, “Henry: Pick on someone your own size.” It has a small pink plastic fetus affixed to it. Renault walks slowly as if to a funeral dirge. He has a mournful face, downcast eyes and a stern mouth. “What do I accomplish?” he says. “I don’t know, but I think it’s important to be a witness.” At 76, he has been protesting for 15 years, the first five at Morgentaler’s original clinic on the north side of the St. John River and since 1999, here on Brunswick Street.

Next door is a white cottage with flower boxes on its windowsills. It is the site of the pro-life Women’s Care Centre, as well as the headquarters of New Brunswick Right to Life. Their location is deliberate; if the placard-bearers can talk a woman out of entering the clinic, their kind of help is close at hand. That same evening, a half-dozen women, all in their twenties, gather at a table a little removed from the other diners on a restaurant’s backyard patio. They are feminists, pro-choice activists in this predominantly conservative city. Many volunteer as patient escorts at the clinic; one of them, 25-year-old Peggy Cooke, is its volunteer coordinator. She is also the author of a spunky blog, Anti-Choice Is Anti-Awesome, about life at the clinic and the antics of protesters she’s dubbed Glarey Mary, Crazy Legs and Mad Thad. “Intimidate women. That’s all they’re there to do,” she says.

But the pro-life forces in New Brunswick have been effective. New Brunswick pays for abortions only if done in a hospital by an OB/GYN and before 12 weeks – and then only if the woman first gets permission from two doctors. Unlike abortions at clinics in other provinces, those at Morgentaler’s facility in New Brunswick are not publicly funded. The usually upbeat Cooke sighs. “Sometimes it seems that we’re outnumbered.” A silence falls over the table, where there should be excitement, even celebration. An art auction the next day – New Brunswick’s first ever upmarket pro-choice fundraiser, at a smart restaurant – is sold out. The proceeds are going toward Morgentaler’s legal costs in his protracted court battle to get the government to pay for the 700 or so abortions done at his clinic annually, each costing up to $750.

The 27-year-old organizer behind the high-profile party insists she not be identified. She is moving up fast in her career with a government agency that mustn’t know she is a clinic escort. She worked the early shift that day. “It was a sad morning,” she says. Protesters had spotted one woman parking her car in the lot across the street. “They surrounded her, yelling, ‘Slaughter!’?” she recalls, shuddering. Another patient’s boyfriend halted at the clinic door and announced he had forgotten his bank card. The woman, weeping, turned and ran down the street. A third almost backed out of having the procedure when she saw an acquaintance in the waiting room. Volunteers hurried her out and took her in through a back route.

It’s as if time has stood still in this pretty riverside city of heritage homes, indifferent to the two decades that have passed since the Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion on January 28, 1988. Though an attempt was made by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government to replace the law, it was defeated in the Senate. Twenty years later, Canada still has no abortion law; it’s the only developed country in the world without one. A 2008 Toronto Star/Angus Reid survey found that the majority of Canadians are pro-choice: 45 percent felt that abortion should be permitted in all cases and 22 percent felt it should be permitted, but subject to greater restrictions. Meanwhile, 18 percent felt it should be allowed only in cases of rape or incest or to save a woman’s life. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, 60 percent of Canadians supported the appointment of Morgentaler as a member of the Order of Canada.

But if you ask the women who came of age after abortion was decriminalized, the debate is far from being resolved, and abortion has not lost its stigma. Young pro-choice activists still see a need to affirm abortion rights, particularly safe access, as part of an entire slate of sexual freedoms. Their pro-life counterparts want the feminist movement to broaden itself to encompass their beliefs. What it adds up to is a generational change – some of it subtle, some of it definitely not – on both sides of the debate. This is not their mothers’ movement anymore.

Canadians for Choice is a small, potent organization with offices in an ordinary low-rise in Ottawa’s bustling Byward Market. Launched in 2005 from the ashes of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, a defunct lobby group, it bills itself as an educational organization providing information and doing research on sexual and reproductive issues. Under the calm stewardship of Patricia LaRue, who is 29 and bilingual and was pregnant with her first child when we met, it has formed partnerships with advocates, experts and pro-choice groups across the country. With most abortion services in Canada located in major cities, the issue of access is a priority. Women in rural areas and the North have few options for dealing with unwanted pregnancies and there are no abortion services whatsoever on Prince Edward Island. Access is even difficult in cities such as Edmonton, with a population of more than 700,000, where there is only one clinic that offers the procedure.

According to the latest Statistics Canada reports, 96,815 abortions were performed in Canadian hospitals and clinics in 2005, or 28.3 abortions for every 100 live births – a decrease of 3.2 percent from 2004, and a continuation of the decline during the previous few years. To get a comprehensive picture of the status of abortion access, LaRue commissioned a national survey in 2007 called Reality Check. A staff member named Jessica Shaw called 791 public hospitals, working from a standard script: “Hello. I am pregnant and considering an abortion. Do you provide abortions at your hospital?” She noted how she was treated and what information she was given. While many people were supportive and professional, others laughed at her, lied or hung up the phone. She was also told to check the phone book under A, referred to anti-choice organizations and, in one instance, advised to admit herself to a psychiatric hospital.

Canadians for Choice subsequently sent each hospital a questionnaire about abortion facilities and augmented those findings with testimonials from social workers, other staff from sexual-health centres and female patients. The findings were made public in April 2007 at the National Press Club. Only one in six Canadian hospitals offered abortion services, a drop of two percent in four years. (There are also 22 clinics providing the service in Canadian urban centres.) And staff in 41 percent of hospitals offering abortion either didn’t know the service was provided or didn’t know where to direct such calls. In Alberta, that number soared to 75 percent.
It was the first survey of access to abortion in four years; it was extensive, national and rock-solid. Over lunch in a Thai restaurant close to her office, LaRue looks up from her soup and smiles wryly. “It was the best way to show people there was a problem here in Canada,” she says.

Shaw, who is now back in school studying social work, is emblematic of the new breed of pro-choice activist. She’s a doula (a labour coach who provides emotional and physical support during childbirth), as well as an abortion-rights advocate. “To me,” she says, “[the two roles] are complementary. You are supporting a woman no matter how she approaches a pregnancy.” To that end, she has come up with her own definition of pro-choice that includes the right to decide if, when and with whom to have sex; freedom from sexual harassment; and the right to reject forced sterilization, forced abortion or forced pregnancy. “I feel being pro-choice encompasses more than choosing abortion or not.”

This broad approach to reproductive freedom is perhaps the most significant difference between these young activists and their pro-choice foremothers. But when I suggest this to Judy Rebick, a veteran of the feminist movement and the spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics during the ’80s, she protests. “We always wanted a full range of rights for women. We never wanted it to just be about abortion either.” Then she exhales and, over the phone, I can almost hear her shrug. “We were fighting courts, cops and the government. It was such a massive battle the rest got sidelined.”

Now 63 and an author and social-justice activist at Toronto’s Ryerson University, she believes a reconstituted pro-choice movement is roaring back into women’s lives. “The ground is shifting. I was at a conference on sexuality in Toronto in fall 2007 where they had sex toys on the tables. That connection between pro-choice and sexual pleasure wouldn’t have been made by us. It was part of our talk but not of our walk.”

Reproductive choice is a right most young Canadians can take for granted; attempts to put restrictions on abortion have largely been non-starters. The most recent was Bill C-484, which would have allowed a separate homicide charge to be laid in the death of a fetus when a pregnant woman is killed. The bill alarmed pro-choice activists, who saw it as a stealth effort to extend rights to fetuses. But a public fight over C-484 was not to be. The bill died when the parliamentary session ended last fall.

If there is a modern-day abortion battlefield, it’s in college and university campuses across the country, where debates – some spirited, others downright ugly – are sparked and sustained in student centres and dorm rooms, and via cellphones, social networking sites and listservs. According to Ashley Hunkin, the 25-year-old former executive coordinator of the Ottawa-based pro-choice group the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, this renewed discussion of abortion among young people is more inclusive than in the past. “There are a lot of people who are pro-choice who say that abortion is not the choice they would make, but they don’t want a government to tell them what to do,” she says. “When we talk about abortion and choice we frame it around ‘We need access, we need access.’ [But] what about access to childcare, access to pay equity, access to time off?”
Still, this new inclusiveness has its limits. Four years ago, when Hunkin was a student at Carleton University, she helped craft a policy that limited the ways that pro-life organizations could use student funding on the grounds that such groups sought to restrict women’s rights. “All hell broke loose,” Hunkin says. “We were compared to Hitler and Mussolini.”

Similar motions have been passed at other Canadian universities, including the University of British Columbia–Okanagan, Capilano College and Lakehead University. Last spring, at Toronto’s York University, a political-science student named Gilary Massa noticed posters for an abortion debate on campus.
She convinced the student-centre board to ban it in their building, arguing that the airing of pro-life beliefs contravened the board’s mandate of providing a “safe space” for students. In the end, the university supplied an alternative site for the debate and the story made the major Toronto dailies as a fight over free speech. “It was absolutely hijacked,” Massa says. She says she received hundreds of emails, many threatening, as well as phone calls in the middle of the night. “I thought the world was caving in on me.” As a visible Muslim woman – she wears a head scarf – Massa also encountered comments accusing Muslims of being pro-censorship.
York’s student federation, where Massa is vice-president of external affairs, subsequently unanimously passed a motion to deny support to anti-choice groups. And last year, both the Canadian Federation of Students and its Ontario branch voted to support this stance. “Our country is fairly unanimously pro-choice,” says CFS-Ontario chair Shelley Melanson, who considers denying legal access to abortion “a violation of human rights.”

On the other side of the abortion debate are women like Margaret Fung, who was just 18 and in her first year of business studies when she co-founded Students for Bioethical Awareness at York University, the group that ignited the York debate. She says she was hungry for a forum to discuss ideas like cloning, embryonic research and abortion. “The media portrayed us as anti-abortion,” she says. “I formed the club to educate. That was our primary mandate.” Throughout our telephone interview, Fung insisted her group wants to talk, not take sides. But it’s worth noting that the group is part of the National Campus Life Network and has hosted talks by Calgary’s Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform, whose stated mission is to “make abortion unthinkable,” and which has compared abortion to the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda.

A less aggressive approach is found on ProWomanProLife.org, an elegant website that discusses the pro-life point of view from the feminist perspective of empowering women, not as a political football, legal loophole or religious edict. Just as Patricia LaRue and Jessica Shaw represent a new, more inclusive pro-choice movement, ProWomanProLife’s 33-year-old founder, Andrea Mrozek, signifies a shift on the pro-life side, too. Mrozek, a writer and communications manager based in Ottawa, often spices up her blog postings with an appealing mix of easy, sometimes sassy humour and overt feminism.
“Women can be powerful and do whatever they want,” she says. “But abortion is not part of that.” Mrozek isn’t interested in lobbying politicians to recriminalize abortion. She’d rather change minds through debate and conversation, and increase financial and social support for pregnant women so that they will not decide to abort. “Not because there’s a law telling them what to do.”
Along with five other young professional women from across the country, she launched the website in January 2008. “I looked at the Canadian landscape and noticed there was no [pro-life] voice focusing on women’s rights,” she says. “There was no one representing my point of view in the public square.” So she worked up her courage to send out some emails to women she thought – but wasn’t sure – might be on the same page. “That’s the way it is with this issue,” she says. “There’s a pro-choice status quo. It’s assumed you must be pro-choice. The issue can be a conversation stopper.”

If pop culture is anything to go by, Mrozek is absolutely right. Despite an increasing open-mindedness about sexuality, abortion remains a taboo subject among women themselves, in films and on TV. That silence prompted the New York feminist writer Jennifer Baumgardner to create a T-shirt a few years ago, which she sold through Planned Parenthood Association of America, that announced in bold type, “I Had an Abortion.” In an interview with the news website Salon, she said that “if more women are honest about their abortions, it will be harder to take away that right.” Certainly, in recent films, there’s little honesty about how prominently the issue figures in many women’s lives. (Compared with the 100,000 abortions performed in Canada each year, there are about 1.2 million in the U.S.) Yet the teenaged heroine of the 2007 hit film Juno rejects abortion. As does the abused waitress played by Keri Russell in the popular indie film Waitress. It’s also not an option for Katherine Heigl’s ambitious television reporter in Knocked Up; instead it’s the punch line of the father-to-be’s slacker friends who can’t bring themselves to even say the word. The message is clear: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

In Vancouver, Sally, 32, has what she considers her perfect job. As a nurse, she helps with abortions at the Elizabeth Bagshaw Women’s Clinic, work she feels is important. “I’m helping women in crisis,” she says. “They don’t see the doctor’s face during the procedure. All they see is me. It’s intense.” Yet she never talks about her work with her friends. “I know most people can’t handle it,” she says. “There’s a fair bit of judgment from other women.” (Sally preferred that we not use her last name.) That judgment is what led the Toronto photographer Kathryn Palmateer to fire off emails to friends in October 2007 after reading a newspaper article that said that most women were no longer willing to fight for access to abortion. “The question of abortion is really a silent issue in our society. There’s still a lot of stigma,” she says. In her email she asked women if they would be willing to stand up for the issue by being photographed and stating they had had abortions. About a dozen of the 20 she contacted initially said yes. Many told her it was the first time they’d talked about their abortions. A second email resulted in even more participants and Palmateer mounted an exhibit at the Contact Toronto Photography Festival in 2008. The photos can still be viewed on Palmateer’s website, Arts4choice.com. Still, only first names were used, at the request of some of the women.

Back in Fredericton, the city is in the throes of a heat wave the night of the pro-choice art auction and the sounds of music and laughter float out into the steamy evening from the crowded restaurant. The organizer, flushed and proud, strides back and forth, her high heels clicking on the wood floor, as she brandishes the canvases, weavings, jewellery and sculpture for sale. Peggy Cooke, at a desk near the back registering bidders and giving out the auction paddles, expresses her surprise that “it actually was possible to take an issue like abortion – so contentious – and get people to support it in a public way.” Members of fine old Fredericton families – “people other people pay attention to,” as Cooke puts it – raised $5,000 for Morgentaler’s court battle. They also raised the hopes of Cooke and her fellow activists. They’ve been arranging transportation for young women from their province to attend a Montreal conference for young activists. One bus is already full. Cooke’s friend Keri Ryan is one of the organizers; she’s been telling Cooke that people are clamouring to meet the feisty women from New Brunswick. They are considered heroes in this revitalized pro-choice movement. “This time last year, I don’t think anybody knew what was going on in New Brunswick,” Cooke says. All that’s changed. And if this new generation of activists has its way, we’ll be hearing a lot more from both sides.