The problem with Canada’s abortion law is that it doesn’t exist

Op-eds Opinions Uncategorized

Before we start to think a “heartbeat bill” couldn’t pass here, let’s look at our own policies (or lack thereof)

Stock image via Pixabay

Abortion is a highly divisive political topic, if not the most. Last month, states like Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Ohio, and Mississippi brought it to the forefront by passing “heartbeat bills.” Although these bills could be blocked by a federal judge in July, as of now they only allow legal abortions up to six weeks into a pregnancy, or when a heartbeat can be detected. At six weeks, many people do not even know they are pregnant. This legislation makes abortion effectively illegal. 

But even so, I was surprised to see so many Canadians chime in. 

Many Canadian political leaders have started talking about the issue. For instance, leaders from the Green Party, New Democratic Party, and Liberal Party all expressed their support for a person’s right to choose. The current leader of the Conservative Party promised not to re-open the abortion debate in Canada, which echoes the same position former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper held while he was in office. Although supposedly, a majority of people in the House of Commons support the right to choose, we currently have no abortion policy in Canada. 

Before we tell ourselves we are better than the divisive politics around abortion in the United States, let’s first take a look in the mirror. 

Abortion is not accessible for all Canadians. Although abortions are covered by our public health care system, whether or not a person has access to abortion procedures depends on where they live. In Alberta, for example, a person can only receive an abortion in Calgary or Edmonton. In Canada’s north, it’s even trickier. Only some provinces have access zone legislation, which establishes that pro-life protesters cannot be within a close range of an abortion clinic. This patchwork of provincial abortion policies is a product of the lack of a federal policy. 

In the U.S., the new anti-abortion laws may be challenged in the Supreme Court. If these “heartbeat bills” are validated by the Supreme Court, it would overturn their decision that allowed abortion in the U.S., Roe v. Wade. 

Canada’s Roe v. Wade. is known as R. v. Morgentaler. In 1973, Morgentaler publicly stated that he had performed 5 000 abortions at his practice, and was subsequently arrested because abortion was illegal as per the Criminal Code of Canada. Morgentaler appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and succeeded in arguing that section seven in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to abortion. 

This court decision made abortion legal, but it did not stop debates around abortion from occurring across the nation. After the court case made him famous, Morgentaler was attacked by a man wielding garden shears, and a feminist named Judy Rebick stepped in to save him. Ten years later, his clinic was firebombed in Toronto. 

Shortly after the Morgentaler case was in the Supreme Court, in 1990, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government tried to pass a bill that would make all abortions illegal unless the women’s life was in danger. Bill C-43 was narrowly defeated by a tie vote in the Senate. As these debates were going on in the House of Commons, a 20 year old woman in Toronto — Yvonne Jurewicz — died from a self-induced abortion, reportedly because she believed abortions were already illegal. 

Today, opinion polls suggest that a majority of Canadians support a person’s right to choose. But the lack of accessible abortions throughout Canada, and the silencing of the abortion debate, means that we have no reason to boast our superior position on this issue to our American neighbours if we don’t actually have much to show for it. 

And here’s the thing Canadians like to forget: we are more similar to our American neighbours than we think. 

There really isn’t anything to stop lawmakers from infringing on abortion rights in Canada, because no abortion policy exists here. R. v. Morgentaler was 30 years ago, and although the ruling still stands, it could be challenged. The last time it was, with Mulroney’s Bill C-43, is still pretty recent in our history. Since then, we have shut the book on abortion policy, and Canada remains one of the few countries without a policy on abortion. 

Our politicians have been less than willing to re-open this issue because abortion is divisive — it would be akin to opening Pandora’s box. This includes Prime Minister Trudeau, who was quick to express his disappointment with the heartbeat bills in the States. Trudeau, and every Prime Minister since his dad was in office, have failed to spell out a policy that gives all Canadians access to abortions.  

Without a federal law in place around abortion, Canada has left a space for provinces to create their own restrictions on access, or for later governments to impose a strict ban. And while the U.S. backtracks in terms of their abortion policies, let’s look at our own policies before we bash theirs. After all, the legal abortions we now take for granted could just as easily be taken away by some type of heartbeat bill here, too.