Affirming Women's Rights in Canada Should Not Fall into "Thoughts and Prayers" Category

– Hilary LeBlanc –

Women across the U.S. responded immediately to the leaked decision of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) that a majority of justices are prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973), speaking out, organizing rallies and campaigns. The Roe v. Wade decision gave constitutional protection to the right of women to decide whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. In response, Canada's Families Minister Karina Gould, in answer to a question on CBC's Power & Politics, stated that women from the U.S. would be welcome to come to Canada to obtain abortions. If women from the U.S. travel to Canada seeking abortions, the service would be made available to them, she said.

What this means is not clear to Canadians. It is inconceivable that poor women in any U.S. state can afford to travel to Canada, and especially poor women in the southern states. And with less than 40 per cent of U.S. citizens estimated to be passport holders, the lack of a passport would constitute another impediment for many women, even if they lived closer to the border. So it looks like the Minister's statement is just for propaganda value to suggest that Canada's government upholds women's rights. She did, nonetheless, have to admit that Canada's health care system is so deficient as to not be able to fulfill the Canadian need for abortions, let alone those of women from the U.S.

Gould admitted as much when she said that while Canada will remain open to women from the U.S. seeking abortions, "One of the concerning factors here is that there are many Canadian women who maybe don't live near a major city in Canada, but will often access these services in the United States. I'm very concerned about the leak yesterday. I'm very concerned about what this means, particularly for American women, but also for Canadian women."

The fact remains that 54 years after parliament first considered changes to Canadian law to legalize abortion, women's reproductive rights are far from adequately protected in Canada. Access to abortions remains restricted as a result of lack of facilities and the cutbacks and privatizations taking place under the anti-social offensive. A 2016 UN Human Rights Commissioner's report noted a lack of access to abortion and affordable contraception in Canada and called on the government to take action.

Abortion is a medically necessary health service, yet women who live outside of Canada's major cities face significant barriers. For example, in Ontario, abortion services are available only in Toronto, Ottawa and three cities in southwestern Ontario. This health service is available in only five cities in the prairies and three in the Atlantic provinces. As a result, many women must travel out of their communities, sometimes great distances, with none of the expenses for travel, accommodations, and other costs covered and reimbursed. As well as geographic lack of access, a growing number of people in Canada have no health care coverage at all, including undocumented workers, many migrant workers, international students and "guest workers."

Even before the pandemic, the neo-liberal offensive has created long wait lists for medical and surgical procedures and care, and people have trouble finding a family doctor, sometimes going for years without one. The pandemic has made the crisis much worse, creating even more acute problems of timely access.

The Minister's concern about the reversal of abortion rights in the U.S. and its implications for Canada does not translate into action to repair the health care system in Canada. In fact, for the Liberals and other cartel party governments, rights always remain an abstraction, even in the face of the facts. When Justin Trudeau also weighed in on the leak about the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade, he said: "The right to choose is a woman's right and a woman's right alone. Every woman in Canada has a right to a safe and legal abortion. We'll never back down from protecting and promoting women's rights in Canada and around the world."

It has become a hallmark of the Trudeau government to espouse politically correct high ideals but when it comes to its deeds, "protecting and promoting women's rights" is not provided with guarantees in the material world. Liberal hypocrisy can be seen on every front, especially when it comes to the plight of women in need of housing, daycare, jobs and material supports of all kinds. The hypocrisy is best seen also on the matter of the negation of the rights of Indigenous women. When the government was confronted with the fact that while about five per cent of Canadian women are Indigenous, but Indigenous women now make up half the population of female federal inmates, Marion Buller, chief commissioner of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, nailed it. She said that the responsible minister's response "falls into the thoughts and prayers category. There's nothing there."

It is the militant fight of women over many years which has affirmed rights including the right to abortion, and forced governments to abolish laws which violate women's right to decide. There is also the concern that with the spread of ideologically driven violence in the U.S., this will spill over into Canada and women will have to defend themselves once again against violence on that score as well. It must not be permitted to happen. Governments must be held to account to protect women, with the necessary investments to ensure access for all for their health needs and those of their children, including by upholding women's reproductive rights and everything needed for their families to thrive.

Upholding women's reproductive rights means that all the services women require must be accessible, free, high-quality, delivered by health care workers whose well-being is looked after, and available in a safe environment and timely fashion.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 5 - May 21, 2022

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