Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights

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Today I attended and spoke at a rally to commemorate the first anniversary of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s death and to call for improved access to abortion for Maritimers. It was also a rally meant as an expression of solidarity with reproductive justice advocates in New Brunswick who are pushing back against the imminent closure of the Morgentaler Clinic.

I also think it’s important to publicly discuss some of the issues that exist with the pro choice movement, and to acknowledge the privilege that many of us who are outspoken pro choice activists have.

It was heartening to see a good turnout at this important event, and I am grateful to the organizers for their work and to all those who came and showed their support. As a sexual health educator and activist, it’s so lovely to see the community stand in solidarity with those who are working towards reproductive justice.

It’s also important for the white cisgender women who are often at the forefront of the pro-choice movement to acknowledge our privilege. It’s important for us to educate ourselves on the ways that the experiences of people of colour and people with disabilities are erased when the issues of the access to abortion is framed as simply pro or anti choice. Andrea Smith’s article “Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice” is required reading for white feminists who identify as pro-choice (well, and also those that don’t, but that’s a harder sell).

Secondly, I think that the bare minimum we can do is to acknowledge that all of the speakers today were white women, and we therefore represented only one small part of the experiences of people seeking reproductive and sexual health care. We must begin to work hard to disrupt this homogeneity in our work, and acknowledge that our movement is not universal and that we do not speak for everyone. Most importantly, we must acknowledge our privilege within these spaces (and always, but especially within white activist spaces).

It’s also important that we recognize and work to end the cissexism of reproductive justice movements. Transgender people and genderqueer folks need access to reproductive and sexual health services too. They also face more barriers to access than cis people. Trans* people regularly face physical and verbal violence within the healthcare system,  a health care system that erases their experiences and renders them invisible. When we talk about abortion, it’s fundamental that we begin to acknowledge these experiences. Simple shifts like saying “cis women and trans* people” when we’re talking about abortion, or simply saying “people who need abortions” goes a long way in disrupting the cissexist narratives that dominate the pro-choice movement.

It’s exciting that we’re in a time and a space where we can challenge ourselves and critique our own movements. There is no weakness in this, and taking an intersectional stance on abortion will only make our movements stronger.

And without further ado, here are the things I said this afternoon:

“As someone who grew up in New Brunswick and saw the effects of the lack of reproductive justice education and services, and as a current sexual health educator and activist for sexual and gender justice I wanted to talk about how the imminent closure of the Morgentaler clinic is a tremendous blow to not only New Brunswick, but also to the Maritimes.

New Brunswick needs to address issues of access.

The Morgentaler clinic has been picking up the slack for an apathetic, irresponsible, and willfully ignorant New Brunswick government for close to twenty years.

While we’re here to advocate for the Morgentaler, it’s important to note that the Morgentaler would not need to exist if the New Brunswick government would simply do it’s job and respect the reproductive rights of New Brunswickers.

While we need to have a discussion about a province and a country where there is no demand for the Morgentaler clinic, we first need to address the current political indifference to the wellbeing, health and safety of all those who need reproductive and sexual health care.

We are here to demand that the New Brunswick government remove the barriers that have been purposefully set up to restrict access to abortion.

Until Section 84-20, Schedule 2 (a.1) of the Medical Service Payment Act * is repealed and the province’s hospitals can meet the demand for abortion in the province, the Morgentaler is a fundamental resource for people throughout the Maritimes.

With the closure of the Morgentaler Clinic, New Brunswick will lose about 60 per cent of it’s ability to provide abortion. In addition, 10 per cent of the abortions provided in the clinic are provider to Prince Edward Islanders, and PEI would lose about 50 per cent of it’s abortion services according to UNB law professor Jula Huges.

In 2010, 471 people had abortions in New Brunswick hospitals, while 627 had abortions at the Morgentaler clinic, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. This means that close to 60 per cent of people who needed abortions in NB chose to use the Morgentaler, despite abortion being available in hospital. This speaks volumes about the inaccessibility of abortion in public hospitals.

The government has not explained how they intend to pick up this slack, and it appears they are operating from an “end demand” model, operating under the naive assumption that if they strangle access to abortion services, the demand will simply dry up.

New Brunswick needs to address issues around reproductive health care more broadly.

It is necessary that the New Brunswick government grant those who need abortions safe, legal and free access to those services, and they can begin by repealing section 84-20 . But it’s also important to draw attention to the other barriers that exist, and demand that the government address these as well.

Making access to abortion easier, safe, and affordable is the bare minimum. New Brunswick must also ensure that all people of all genders have access to quality education, services and information about their sexual and reproductive health.

Rural isolation, high poverty rates, and lack of quality sexual health information make accessible pro-choice services even more critical. We know that access to comprehensive, quality and non-judgemental sexual health education reduces unplanned pregnancy. We also know that when abortion is illegal or inaccessible that people still seek abortions, they just get them from unsafe, underground services.

It’s not enough to simple have a hospital or two that provides abortion (although it would help). Our governments need to recognize the rampant racism, transphobia, poverty and lack of quality sexual health education that create barriers to access to reproductive health care in the Maritimes.

Access to sexual and reproductive health services is also an economic issue. By stubbornly refusing to fund abortion, the New Brunswick government is further oppressing marginalized people. I regularly speak to people who cannot access care in their own communities, a common situation in New Brunswick. The cost associated with travel, missing work, and finding a place to stay is often restrictive. Recently, Canada lost the program that provided free birth control to those who could not afford it, a tremendous blow especially in rural areas. How can we expect those who struggle to afford birth control to pay for an abortion? It is necessary that the government begin to address poverty and oppression by providing better sexual and reproductive health services, funding all abortion, and ensuring that people can access affordable birth control.

In Nova Scotia, we are lucky to have several organizations that are funded and able to provide services related to reproductive justice and sexual health. The Nova Scotia Association for Sexual Health and it’s member organizations, including the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, provide a wide range of educational and clinical services. But organizations like these across the Maritimes can barely meet the demand, and receive minimal support from governments who don’t recognize the complexity of the issue.

If New Brunswick does repeal section 84–20 and fund the Morgentaler until such a time that the province can provide free abortion in hospitals to everyone who needs it, it will be a good start. But it will only be a start.

We must call on New Brunswick, and all Maritime provinces to provide comprehensive sexual health education throughout grade schools, fund trans* inclusive services related to sexual health, address the racism and transphobia that is so pervasive within sexual health narratives, fund harm-reduction services, provide affordable birth control, and act deliberately to support a persons right to choose when and if to become pregnant, when and if to have children and when and if to parent.”

* Section 84-20, Schedule 2 (a.1) of the Medical Service Payment Act states that an abortion will be covered by Medicare in New Brunswick only if (1) it is done in a hospital, (2) by a specialist in the field of obstetrics or gynaecology, and (3) two doctors have certified in writing that the procedure is medically required. These regulations cause significant barriers for people seeking abortions.

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