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Canada, US: the fight continues for reproductive rights

Laura Kaminker

March 1, 2012

While women in North America enjoy greater equality and social participation than some of our sisters globally, our rights—particularly our reproductive rights—are under constant threat.

In the United States, anti-woman zealots have succeeded in passing hundreds of state laws that drastically restrict access to abortion, contraception and other necessary health care. Exorbitant fees, mandatory waiting periods, mandatory coercive “counselling,” and parental or spousal consent laws all combine to prevent women from exercising their reproductive rights. Naturally, working-class and low-income women are hardest hit by these laws.

Against this backdrop, it was inspiring to see massive numbers of women and men organize to defeat a “fetal personhood” referendum in Mississippi, and to force the resignation of a top official from the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Komen, a breast-cancer advocacy organization, cut funding to Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of women’s health care in the US. Despite reports to the contrary, that funding has not been restored.

In Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is also trying to turn back the clock on women’s rights. The Tories’ so-called “maternal health” initiative blocked foreign aid for family planning services. Only an international outcry forced the government to include funding for contraception, but pregnancy termination remains excluded. Health care and women’s rights advocates agree that this could lead to thousands of preventable deaths in developing countries.

At home, Conservative MPs have tabled more than one private member’s bill aimed at treating fetuses as legal persons, which would criminalize abortion and abortion providers. This “anti-choice by stealth” strategy allows the Tories to appear to honour the Prime Minister’s pledge not to re-open the abortion debate—while doing exactly that. As on so many issues, the government’s stance is completely out of step with the Canadian public, who want abortion to remain safe and legal in Canada.

The US anti-choice movement, which has been gaining strength since the early 1980s, has demonized women’s health care providers, leading to anti-abortion terrorism that has claimed eight lives. It is little wonder, then, that nearly 90 per cent of US counties have no abortion provider. In Canada, there are no abortion services in the province of Prince Edward Island. Women in the north and in rural areas must travel long distances to obtain abortions, an unnecessary obstacle in a country that is supposed to have universal access to health care.

While women’s rights are much broader than abortion rights, without both the right and the means to control our own bodies, women cannot be truly equal citizens. Reproductive rights are the cornerstone of women’s equality. Women and men must join in struggle to keep and expand those rights.

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