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Defend abortion on demand

Jesse McLaren

March 20, 2013

Abortion has been a permanent feature of society, but it was only under capitalism that it became criminalized—as part of imposing the heteronormative nuclear family where women do unpaid labour raising the next generation of workers. The women's movement won a historic victory 25 years ago, striking down the abortion law as part of a broad movement for reproductitve rights, and the movement is rising against to confront the austerity-driven attacks on women.
In the late 1800s Canada criminalized abortion, birth control, and homosexuality, and later imposed sterilization on indigenous women and women with disabilities. This didn’t stop abortion but only made it dangerous, and thousands of women died from back alley abortions. In 1969 abortions were allowed if granted by a “therapeutic abortion committee” of physicians who would sit in judgement to decide if women were allowed access to a safe abortion. Hospitals didn’t have to have committees, they didn’t have to meet, women didn't have a say, and clinic abortions were still illegal. The laws were more restrictive than after the US legalization, so thousands of women crossed the border.
Dr. Morgentaler began performing abortions in Montreal and publicizing them to openly challenge the law. He was taken to court but juries dominated by catholic men refused to find him guilty—though the courts intervened to send him to jail. When he opened a clinic in Toronto in early 1980s, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics formed to provide clinic defense and to mobilize against the law. A broad movement was built connecting opposition to the law with sexual freedom, pay equity and childcare, and opposition to forced sterilization along with a working class perspective that won the labour movement to the cause. On January 28 1988 the law was struck down, and subsequent efforts to recriminalize abortion were defeated from below.
The majority remains pro-choice, which is why Harper insists that “we are not opening the abortion debate.” But the Tories have launched endless anti-choice policies. Globally, Harper imposed maternal health plan that excludes abortion, and then restricted Planned Parenthood funding to where abortion illegal. Nationally, Harper refuses to enforce Canada Health Act requiring access to abortion. There are no providers in PEI and rural areas, and NB refuse cover clinic abortion. The Tories bring endless series of motions and bills aimed at restricting abortion
Condemn discrimination against women
Most recent is M408, debated April 15, “that house condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination”—based on supposed epidemic of sex-selection abortion in South Asian community.
This is trying to create a crisis, driven by racism. Because Canada has no legal barrier to abortion, 90 per cent occur before 12 weeks (before sex determination is reliable) and 97% by 16 weeks (before routine ultrasound). One study found higher male:female child ratio in women from India, but this accounted for less than 1% of births and could be accounted for by other factors. While there is no evidence that sex-selection abortion is a phenomenon in Canada, the Tories are trying to create a crisis that blames immigrants and leads to the racial profiling of South Asian women.
Lip service about fighting discrimination against women masks a Tory record of attacks on childcare, pay equity, trans rights, total indifference to missing and murdered aboriginal women, funding cuts for women’s groups, and attacks on abortion. Globally 47,000 women die from unsafe abortion every year—including Savita Halappanavar who died in Ireland last year. Through racism and sexism, M408 revives the paternalistic concept of the “therapeutic abortion committee”, based on the reactionary notion that women can’t be trusted to control their own bodies and that state has to intervene to regulate their reproduction. That this is the end result of these motions/laws is obvious from the Tory MPs who recently called for criminalization of late-term abortions.
Defend free abortion on demand
Provincially there are also attacks on abortion as part of austerity agenda. Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak signed petition to defund abortion, and yesterday there was an anti-choice rally at Queen’s Park. Claiming that “the cost of our current healthcare system is skyrocketing with no apparent solution,” and that “we want scarce money directed toward saving lines, not taking them,” the anti-choice movement is arguing that abortions are not “medically necessary” and so should be defunded.
First, this scapegoats women for the underfunding of healthcare. Canada has a very low abortion rate that has been declining. Our healthcare problems are not because of women’s reproductive choices but because of privatization and cutbacks by right-wing forces insisting cuts are necessary to our "skyrocketing" healthcare costs. Instead of defending public healthcare from billions of dollars of cutbacks, the anti-choice claim there is “no apparent solution” other than blaming women and defunding the small portion of healthcare that provides safe access to abortion. The small and angry, male-dominated rally also revealed the broader bigotry of the anti-choice agenda by passing out transphobic leaflets.
Secondly, claiming abortion is not “medically necessary” is both false on two counts. First, women die if they don’t have access to abortion, making abortion essential to health. Second, it's entirely up to women to determine what's a “medical necessity” for their own bodies. Using any other abstract criteria revives the paternalistic and medically-dominant notion of the "therapeutic abortion committee" that was defeated by the women's movement a generation ago.
The slogan “free abortion on demand” is essential for women to have control of their bodies, and movements are rising once again—from the October 20 pan-Canadian day of action for reproductive justice, to the January 28 celebration of the Morgentaler decision that recounted the lessons of the past struggle and connected the experience of the previous generation with the new generation of reproductive freedom fighters. The next steps include defeating Motion 408 and stopping the defunding of abortion, as part of a broader movement for reproductive justice.

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