As if we weren’t already living through a pandemic-induced dystopian nightmare this year, Republicans south of the border are attempting to push through the confirmation of an anti-choice Supreme Court justice candidate who once served as a “handmaid” in a hierarchical male-dominated religious community and, in 2006, signed a public letter in favour of overturning “barbaric” Roe v. Wade, the legal foundation for access to reproductive healthcare rights in the U.S.
The appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat on the highest court in the United States would tip the scales in favour of anti-choice organizations that have been chipping away at abortion rights for decades. Already, 90% of American counties lack their own clinic and 21 states stand poised to severely limit or outright ban abortions should Roe be struck down by a reconstituted, conservative-dominated court. American women are and should be scared that their access to safe abortion could largely disappear.
But should Canadians be worried, too? From pop culture to populism, social and political trends originating in the U.S. tend to seep north and into the Canadian collective consciousness. Population-wise, we’re a small country sharing a landmass with a behemoth. So amidst hearings to confirm Trump’s nominee (the Senate will vote on October 26), we’re seeking advice from an expert: Can the effects of a change in the U.S. see an erosion of access to care in Canada?
Kelly Gordon, assistant professor in the Political Science department at McGill University, researches conservative movements and the way they intersect with politics and gender. She’s also the co-author of a book called The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of “Pro-Woman” Rhetoric in Canada and the United States. We asked Gordon to weigh in on the health of reproductive rights on our side of the border and the influence that major shifts in U.S. abortion policy could have in Canada.
What abortion laws in Canada look like right now
“One of the really interesting things about Canadian abortion law is that since 1988, we actually don’t have any laws about abortion on the books. That’s really rare,” explains Gordon, citing the late ’80s Supreme Court move to strike down the abortion provision in Canada’s criminal code as unconstitutional. During the period between 1969 and that historic 1988 decision (shout out to the late abortion advocate Dr. Henry Morganthaler), abortion was only an option for women whose life or health was endangered by a pregnancy and the procedure had to be approved by a medical panel. Before 1969, it was banned completely.
Currently, Canadian women across the country are entitled to unrestricted abortion care, funded in part by the Canada Health Act. In terms of access, however, provincial governments are in charge of where and how easily care can be obtained. This is the point at which politics can enter the arena, but provincial roadblocks are typically (if not quickly) thwarted by the Feds.
The fact that, aside from private members bills, “no government has tabled any abortion-related legislation tells us a lot about the relationship between parties and politics and abortion in Canada as opposed to the U.S., where we saw the consolidation of the Republican party around a ‘pro-life’ anti-abortion agenda,” says Gordon. While the political Right embraces an anti-aboriton stance as a strategy to sway and divide American voters, Canadian parties at the federal level try to steer clear of the topic, classifying it as a medical rather than a political issue.
How access to abortion in Canada differs from access in the U.S.
“Abortion by and large is accessible with big caveats and most abortion care is funded by the Canadian government,” says Gordon. “So that makes it really different than in the American context. This is not to say that abortion access is equitable across the country—we see big barriers to access in rural areas.”
For example: For many years, tiny, conservative Prince Edward Island didn’t have its own abortion care facility. Currently, New Brunswick does not provide coverage for clinic-based care to residents, forcing some women to book overnight travel in order to access hospital services. The Federal government says that the province’s refusal to pay for clinic-based care contravenes the Canada Health Act and has withheld funding accordingly. Yet despite the discrepancies in access among the provinces and between rural and urban communities, access to and affordability of abortion care remains much better in Canada than in the U.S. where individual states have far more control over reproductive health legislation than provinces do. See: HBO Max’s Unpregnant for a comedic-but-based-in-fact account of a teenager having to travel from Missouri to New Mexico in order to get an abortion without the involvement of her parents (something required by all but 13 states).
In Canada, access to abortion is actually making slow but steady progress, including the approval of Mifepristone and subsequent loosening of restrictions around use of the drug, which Gordon calls the “gold standard of medication abortion.” Mifepristone would make abortion more available in communities where facilities and other resources are scarcer.
Public opinion on abortion care in Canada versus the U.S.
Despite an apparent rise in high-profile abortion activism in Canada (Torontonians won’t soon forget the encounter that went down in 2018 between protesters and the owner of a vegan pizza shop) the numbers show that abortion is met with majority approval among the public. “Some polling says that up to 85% of Canadians support legal, funded access to abortion care,” says Gordon. “So we have really high levels of public support. There’s also some evidence that when we have national debates about abortion care or when debates seep up from the U.S. support actually goes up.”
That said, public support for abortion care is also quite high in the States. The people lobbying for restrictive abortion legislation are conservative (often religious, according to a 2019 Gallup poll) special interest groups that apply pressure to state lawmakers. In turn, these legislators, largely in Republican-held areas, often use TRAP legislation to quietly erode access instead of mounting light-of-day attacks on care that would be protested in a big way by the majority. One infamous example took place in North Carolina in 2013 when a restriction to abortion access was passed in the middle of the night, attached to a bill about motorcycle safety.
“These are things you do when you really don’t want the public to have the opportunity to understand what is going on and participate in the fundamental democratic process of being able to lobby your elected officials so that they are representing you,” Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America recently told The New York Times’ The Daily podcast.
The shifting strategies that anti-choice groups use to push their agenda in Canada
Movements like the National Campus Life Network (a group with more than 40 chapters based on campuses across the country) and Campaign Life Coalition (the organizers behind the annual March for Life) employ tactics that involve a shift in focus from the “rights” of a fetus to the “harm” abortion inflicts on women. “The anti-abortion movement is sort of shifting both their tone, particularly towards women, and also kind of in the contours of their arguments,” says Gordon. “What they realized is that religious, fetal-centric arguments aren’t going to persuade Canadians. So what we see is ‘abortion harms women’ arguments.”
For example, she explains, anti-choice activists accuse abortion care providers of misleading women, they falsely claim that abortion physically and psychologically harms women, they broach the topic of sex-selective abortion and label it as discrimination against girls and women, and they cite the unfounded statistic that 90% of women regret their decision to have an abortion. “They’re also foregrounding really smart young telegenic women to do it,” Gordon says. “You’ll never see a male anti-abortion activist talk about the movement on TV in Canada anymore.” In the U.S., she explains, anti-abortion activists constitute a larger, less cohesive group and strategies can diverge though the “pro-woman” rhetoric is being adopted there, too.
Looked at side-by-side, if Canadian anti-abortion activism appears to present a united (if small) front staging a campaign against the monolith of the Federal government, American activism looks, to defenders of abortion care, more like a game of whack-a-mole in which groups both large and small can launch simultaneous attacks federally as well as state by state.
The health of abortion rights in Canada
“I think we can 100% say that the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. has been winning since Roe v. Wade—it has been winning for the last 30 years,” says Gordon, adding, “The anti-abortion movement in Canada has been losing for the last 20 years.” While access to abortion care in the U.S. is rolled back, access in Canada continues its slow march forward, the 2015 Health Canada approval and 2017 public availability of mifepristone being one example and the continuing resistance from Canadian politicians at the Federal level, both Liberal and Conservative, to bend to anti-choice NGO pressure being another.
Even current Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who identifies on a personal level as anti-abortion, has explicitly stated that he isn’t interested in “removing rights from Canadians” when it comes to access and care. So while anti-choice groups make small inroads into the political sphere (like Campaign Life Coalition did when it backed Premiere Doug Ford’s election in Ontario) Federal politics remain impenetrable. Politicians are keenly aware of the majority position on abortion.
But all of this doesn’t mean that Canadian women shouldn’t keep an eye on the security of their rights. In 2013, two liberal, female justices had just been confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court by former President Obama, making threats to Roe v. Wade appear incredibly distant. Just seven years later, American women are facing a dark age for reproductive rights and dominion over their own bodies. A lot can change. We need to stay vigilant.