Just a heartbeat away

I try not to pay attention to what goes on south of the border. We have our own crazed demagogue in power in Ontario, which is enough for any ageing feminist to handle.

However, it has been impossible not to pay attention to recent changes to the law in a number of American states; changes that will severely limit legal abortion. These bills appear to be part of a calculated political strategy: pass outrageous legislation, force court challenges that will eventually make their way to the Supreme Court, which will likely overturn Roe v Wade, thus making abortion once again illegal in the United States. Even the notorious and seemingly indomitable RBG can’t stop that on her own.

In March, Mississippi passed legislation making abortion illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy which, at the time, was the most restrictive law in the U.S. On signing the bill, Governor Phil Bryant said he was:

“making Mississippi the safest place in America for an unborn child.”

This seemed to start a domino effect, with Kentucky and Ohio soon after passing so-called “heartbeat bills” to ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. This makes abortion illegal as early as six weeks or even less into a pregnancy – a timeframe in which most women do not even know they are pregnant.

In May, Georgia, which had permitted abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, passed its own heartbeat bill. Last week, Alabama passed the most restrictive abortion law in the country, making virtually all abortions illegal. Doctors who perform abortions in that state will face life in prison if convicted. Shortly after Alabama’s legislation passed, Missouri imposed a ban on abortions after eight weeks.

In most of these states, rape and incest are not an exception to the ban.

Reproductive choice vs guns, American style

This fascination with protecting the “lives” of the unborn is especially interesting in a country that, alone among Western nations, still has the death penalty; a country where buying a gun can be as easy as picking up a quart of milk; where mass shootings are so commonplace they don’t always even make the news. (See this infographic for a chilling reality check.)

As an unidentified blogger wrote in 2015:

“I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it. A mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, traveling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protestors who call him a murderer. After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.”

Legalization is not enough

Of course, making abortion legal is not enough. Journalist Robin Marty, co-author of a soon-to-be-published book entitled The End of Roe v Wade, commented on Democracy Now last week:

“Technically, abortion is legal in all 50 states. It’s just very, very difficult for any person to access it, but especially any person who lives outside of these large cities where the abortion clinics are. One of the things that people aren’t very clear about is that even in states where access is considered slightly better – maybe there are two, three or four abortion clinics in that state – often they are all located in the same city or the same two cities. So in essence, it is just as hard for a person to get in because they will still have to travel. They’ll still have to do their waiting periods. They still have all these roadblocks that they have to get through. When you add these layers upon layers of roadblocks, then you have made abortion significantly impossible to obtain and so you have effectively outlawed it.”

Barriers abound here, too

While abortion is legal in Canada and virtually all provincial, territorial and federal leaders and wanna-be leaders have made a point of saying they will not reopen the abortion debate, there is no room for us to be complacent.

As in the U.S., it may be legal for a woman to get an abortion everywhere in this country, but actually getting one is another matter. Lack of sufficient funding, long distances to medical facilities in many parts of Canada and a variety of provincial laws make access to abortion difficult to impossible for some women.

New Brunswick, for example, does not fund abortions performed at clinics. While Health Canada has noted this as a “concern,” the federal government has not taken the step of penalizing the province by withholding transfer payments.

Women in Prince Edward Island who wish to obtain a medical abortion in their own province must do so within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, which is not a lot better than Missouri’s eight-week limit. According to Karen Segal of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), typical wait times are five to six weeks,

“which, if you don’t know you’re pregnant right away can mean that by the time you have your appointment you’re ineligible for abortion in the province.”

The need for access to abortion is affected by other social policy decisions, so even political leaders who purport to support reproductive choice need to be challenged.

In responding to questions in the Legislature after 21-year-old Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff, speaking at an anti-choice rally, said: “We pledge to make abortion unthinkable in our lifetime” Doug Ford, commented:

“We are not – I’m going to repeat that – we are not reopening any abortion issues here in this legislature.”

However, this is the Premier who has shut down the basic income pilot and cut increases to social assistance, which may mean more women need abortions because they cannot afford to have another child. Failure to implement the sex education curriculum means young people won’t know as much about how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Ending OHIP+ coverage for prescription birth control for young people whose parents have private health insurance creates another barrier for those wishing to prevent a pregnancy.

We can’t be sanguine

Long-time pro-choice activist Judy Rebick commented on CBC’s Metro Morning last week:

“Nobody’s saying you have to have an abortion. Using the law to stop access to abortion is using the law to impose one group’s religious views on others, and it’s completely unacceptable and the majority of Canadians agree with that.”

Attacks on women’s reproductive rights are attacks on women’s equality, because without control over our bodies, there is no equality.

It may be time to haul out those old pro-choice placards, especially as we move closer to the federal election this fall.

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