Equitable access to legal abortion has been deemed fundamental to women's rights to life, liberty, conscience and bodily integrity. And women's rights are not up for debate.
The main cheerleader for re-opening the debate is Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge, newly appointed chairman of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus. Bruinooge went public in December with his plans for a "new era" of advocacy for the "rights of the unborn." He said: "I believe that having open debate on important topics like this is essential for any democratic movement."
The word "debate" is being used as a cover for the desire to pass anti-abortion laws. The main purpose of the Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus is to lobby for legal restrictions, a goal that clashes directly with every major party's policy on abortion. The Parliamentary Pro-Life Caucus has been around for about a dozen years. It's surely no coincidence that from 1996 to 2008, at least 15 anti-abortion bills and motions have been introduced by Reform, Conservative or Liberal MPs. All of them failed.
Despite their lack of legislative success, nothing has ever stopped anti-choice people from speaking their minds publicly. Canada's major newspapers feature regular commentary from a stable of anti-choice columnists and op-ed writers. Anti-abortion letters are published almost daily in papers and on news websites across the nation — in numbers that generally outweigh pro-choice letters by at least a two-to-one margin. Canadian bloggers writing about abortion often do so from an anti-choice perspective, and almost any pro-choice blog gets overrun by anti-choice comments.
However, the apparent strength and numbers of the cyberspace anti-choice community are in direct disproportion to the real world. A wish to "Abolish Abortion" was the winner of CBC's 2007 Great Canadian Wish Contest held on Facebook, but an Angus Reid poll (June 2008) found that only five per cent of Canadians want to make abortion illegal in all circumstances.
It's true that many Canadians have said they want some restrictions on abortion. The same poll cited above found that while 49 per cent of respondents want abortion legal in all cases, 42 per cent would allow abortion only under certain circumstances. For almost all of that demographic, this means laws against later abortions.
Medical procedures, however, are governed by policy, not criminal law. Doctors already adhere to a Canadian Medical Association policy that permits abortion after 20 weeks only "under exceptional circumstances." Less than 0.4 per cent of abortions occur after this point, all for compelling reasons such as serious fetal anomalies or life-threatening maternal health problems. This means that current abortion practice already matches the preferences of the vast majority of Canadians.
Such facts have never stopped the anti-choice movement from spreading misinformation.
An anti-choice group called Signal Hill recently released the results of their own Angus-Reid poll, which found that 92 per cent of respondents did not know that "abortion is permitted at any time from conception up to the moment of birth."
Of course, it's not possible to "know" something that's not true, so this poll is a classic case of garbage in, garbage out.
Canada has done very well without an abortion law of any kind. Our abortion rates are low compared to most other countries in the world, and have been declining steadily since 1999. In other countries, criminal laws against abortion do nothing to reduce it.
The main effect of anti-abortion laws is to kill and injure women in large numbers because they resort to unsafe abortions. Anyone who wants to restrict abortion implicitly wants to make it unsafe and endanger women's lives.
We're well past debating whether pregnant women are entitled to the same human rights as the rest of us. The Supreme Court has ruled several times that they are, which is why fetuses cannot hold competing rights. Instead, let's address the serious problems faced by women trying to access abortion care.
Women living in rural or conservative areas, including the Maritimes, continue to have poor access to abortion care. Less than 20 per cent of hospitals in Canada offer accessible abortion services. Few medical schools offer any training in abortion, even though it is one of the most common of all health-care procedures. In New Brunswick, many women are forced to pay for their own abortions, in violation of the Canada Health Act.
Finally, the ongoing stigma of abortion casts a pall over the entire reproductive health field, creating a chill among providers, and unnecessary shame for women who need abortions.
With a 91 per cent pro-choice majority in this country, Canada has a strong mandate to fix these inequities for women, once and for all. Then maybe the "debate" will finally be over.
Joyce Arthur is co-ordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.