reproductive justice and canada part two, or, women speak the fuck up

Here are some notes from the meeting I attended Monday night, "Harper's Attacks on Reproductive Rights - At Home and Abroad". This is by no means an exhaustive account of what was said, but I hope the highlights will inform and inspire you.

Part one, about recent polls showing reproductive choice is a solid, mainstream Canadian value - and why that does and doesn't matter - is here.

* * * *

Carolyn Egan, of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (as well as the Steelworkers Union and several other hats she wears), set the scene by saying that Harper has made a "colossal political blunder" with the Conservative so-called international maternal health agenda. Up until now, the Conservatives have been attacking reproductive rights by stealth - with private member's bills that would give legal personhood to a fetus or that pretend to protect health workers, through hospitals mergers (public hospitals merging with Catholic facilities), and so on.

But by putting an anti-abortion-rights program front and centre - by using international policy to advance the religious-right agenda - Harper shows his hand to mainstream voters, and may have awoken a sleeping giant. Sixty-seven percent of Canadians polled believe international programs supported by Canada should include the same rights to abortion that Canadians have. There is widespread support for abortion rights in Canada and it's up to us to organize that support.

Carolyn very proudly announced that the main G20 protest march this Saturday will be lead by women carrying a giant coat hanger, protesting Harper's policies, both in solidarity with women all over the world and as Canadians (info here). Be there!

Jessica Yee, of both the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and Canadians for Choice, reminded us that it was also National Aboriginal Day. Jessica spent part of her day at the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, talking about the state of maternal and child health on reserves. Apparently members of the Ministry itself was shocked to hear how poor or nonexistent abortion access is for Native women. (Their ignorance is downright scary.) Jessica said that for Native women, reproductive justice has three prongs: the right to have an abortion, the right to have children and the right to parent as they see fit. Although we often focus on abortion rights, with good reason, reproductive rights must always include an end to sterlization abuse, along with access to quality, accurate sex education and affordable birth control.

Since the meeting took place in Toronto, where access to free abortion exists (including for women without status in Canada), Jessica reminded us that access is very different for so many Canadian women who live elsewhere in Canada.

In PEI, there is no abortion provider.

New Brunswick health insurance doesn't pay for abortion.

In the Northwest Territory and Nunavut, there is one abortion provider for each territory. In NWT, abortions are performed in one clinic on two specific days of the week. Everyone knows that any woman in the clinic on those days is terminating a pregnancy.

In Saskatchewan, there are no freestanding abortion clinics, only hospital procedures, creating unnecessary obstacles and unequal access.

There is a dire shortage of access in Quebec, the same province that declared 88.8% in favour of abortion rights in the recent Nanos poll.

And in many of these places, abortion access goes only up to 12 or 14 weeks, which is often not long enough for a woman to discover and decide about an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

[I'm personally very interested in this unequal access, and plan to become part of the movement to change it. After we win the war resisters battle...]

Ayesha Adhami of the Immigrant Women's Health Centre spoke next. The Immigrant Women's Health Centre in Etobicoke (the west end of Toronto) is an amazing health facility where an all-female staff who speaks nine different languages serves immigrants, refugees, people of colour and women without status. The backgrounds of the staff are the same as those of their patients, so all the women are working together for common goals.

Ayesha was born in Pakistan, but her family came to Canada when she was only an infant. During Ayesha's childhood, her family moved back to Pakistan for six years. During that time, she attended a good school and lived a life of privilege enjoyed by 28% of the population. For the 72% of the population outside of those walls, Ayesha said, life was "incredibly bleak".

Most Pakistani women, are impoverished and illiterate, either toiling away in virtual slavery or scavenging to survive. Many women forgo the survival strategy of marriage in order to help their birth families survive. Single women are constantly sexually assaulted and harassed. There is no access to contraception, and if they become pregnant as a result of rape, they are shamed and ostracized. Married women may be protected, or they may be shackled to their abuser with no way out.

Ayesha told us that abortion is accepted practice in Pakistan, and not uncommon, performed by traditional midwives. (Among men, she says, there is more opposition to contraception than to abortion). Yet North American bureaucrats have decided to over-ride local customs, laws and rights to deny Pakistani women access to abortion. In Pakistan, a safe procedure costs between eight and 20 US dollars.

Ayesha spoke so eloquently about how her experiences in Pakistan have informed her life's work, and so forcefully about our solidarity with all women, everywhere, in our fight to control our own bodies.

Rhonda Roffey from Women's Habitat spoke briefly but got us fired up, reminding the gathering that "women have kicked government's ass in Canada". We have before and we will again.

Rhonda reminded us that Harper's anti-choice attack targets the world's most vulnerable people. Contrary to anti-choice propaganda you may see, globally, giving birth is far more dangerous than abortion. Not only does lack of access to safe abortion kill women, it also creates orphans. A study on child survival in rural Bangladesh showed that a motherless child was 25 times more likely to die before the age of 10 than a child with a mother. Abortion saves lives. Period.

[As always, go to the Alan Guttmacher Institute for all your factual and statistic needs. They are the the single best source for accurate statistics on sexual and reproductive health both in North America and worldwide.]

About reproductive rights, Rhonda reminded us about something I say, write and think about all the time: "If we don't have this, we don't have anything." Without the ability to control our reproduction, women can never be free. And without abortion, such control is impossible. Abortion rights are the sine qua non of women's freedom.

Kelly Holloway, a well-known student activist from York University, talked about her experiences fighting the disgustingly named "Genocide Awareness Project" on her campus. This is a group of radical anti-choicers who display gigantic blown-up photos supposedly of aborted fetuses beside photos of the bodies of Jews slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps and lynched African-Americans. They set up these giant displays on campuses to frighten and harass young women.

In one action that Kelly helped organize, activists surrounded the display with pro-choice banners. But as president of her student union, Kelly led a movement to deny "GAP" student council funding. It was clearly not within the student-body mandate to fund harassment or to fund a group that seeks to criminalize a normal, legal, necessary medical procedure. Note the group was never banned from campus nor denied the right to speak on campus. Also note that many other universities - including the University of Calgary, that "hotbed of radicalism," as Kelly said - have similarly denied funding to "GAP" without controversy.

At York, however, the "GAP" successfully deflected the issue of reproductive rights and hid behind the cloak of free speech - although its speech rights were never questioned or denied. "GAP" successfully portrayed themselves as victims of radical feminists; Kelly was called a "campus totalitarianist". The University, the student newspaper and the media all supported "GAP". The University hosted bogus debates in which two men debated whether or not the fetus is a person. At both events, only men were allowed to speak.

After Kelly spoke, a man in the audience briefly and movingly addressed the gathering. I don't have the correct spelling of his name, but he is a Canadian man, originally from Somalia, who is active in union-organizing of taxi drivers. He told us that he came from a family of 12 children; two were girls, and they helped raise the younger children, including him. His sister, the light of his life and his second mother, died in childbirth, along with her child. This has imprinted his entire life, and informs his deeply held belief that women must have full rights to control their reproductive lives. He rose with this message of support and solidarity to the mostly female gathering.

Last, Angela Robertson of Women's College Hospital, pulled all the issues together, by naming the recolonization that globalization is accomplishing, as governments use a pretext of helping women to insinuate their neoconservative agenda on other countries. She compared Harper's so-called maternal and child health initiative to the discourse of wars supposedly fought to "rescue" women from oppression.

This, Angela said, is our "shut the F up" moment. During the G20, we're not supposed to talk about good jobs because that would mean talking about organized labour. We're not supposed to talk about inequality, because that would mean talking about racism and islamophobia. We're not supposed to talk about unequal access, because that would mean talking about women's rights.

We are not here to "help" women internationally, Angela said. We are here to stand in solidarity with all women, for equal rights for all of us. For free, safe abortions. For access to contraception. For quality sex education. For the rights of sex workers.

Angela moved me by putting the global fight for reproductive justice in context of an even larger global fight, and illustrating why reproductive rights is very much part of the G20 picture.

* * * *

During the Q&A, Michelle Robidoux, my comrade from the War Resisters Support Campaign, said the Harper government is "feeling out the contours of what they can get away with," by putting forth an agenda that sounds respectable on the surface, but is actually dangerous and unjust. For example, the refugee "reform" law contained a new appeals division, something for which refugee advocates have been agitating for many years. But the Harper government surrounded that provision with a laundry-list of anti-refugee clauses. Similarly, they supposedly lead the G20 agenda with a "maternal and child health initiative". How can anyone oppose maternal and child health? But the plan attacks women's basic human rights to control their reproductive decisions.

In the case of the refugee law, polls showed that although Canadians did want to speed up the refugee-claim process, they did not want to do so at the expense of fairness - that the majority was proud to be a haven for refugees and wanted to remain so. Now, on abortion rights, a huge percentage of Canadians believe that everyone - including the people who their tax dollars help - should have the same reproductive rights as Canadians do at home.

Someone asked if the Harper "maternal health" plan is a done deal, already set in stone. Meaning: should we fight?

The answers are yes, and yes.

The G20 maternal and child health initiative was planned without us - which underscores what's wrong with the entire G8/G20 scheme, the total absence of democracy. But we must continue to fight, for many reasons.

One, if we say nothing, the anti-woman forces will get away with more and more and more. We must demonstrate our massive resistance to these plans. We must stand up in great numbers and say, this is not done with our consent. The international piece and our rights at home are intimately connected: if they get away with one without a peep of protest, they think they can get away with the other.

Two, resistance saves lives. In Ireland, where abortion is still illegal, there has been a longtime movement of women going to the UK for abortions. In Mexico, where abortion is mostly illegal, Mexico City is a safe-abortion zone. In the US, where millions of rural and low-income women lack access to abortion, women's underground railroads raise funds for procedures and travel. Women on Waves helps bring medical (non-surgical) abortion to women all over the world. And so on.

These movements are founded and maintained by women and men who refuse to lie down and accept the status quo.

It is too late to change the Harper international anti-woman agenda. But the Mexico City Global Gag Rule was repealed - twice - and future governments can change this, too. But only if we demand it.

* * * *

In closing, Carolyn reminded us that Harper's G20 anti-abortion-rights initiative is a gift to our movement.

The Conservatives' stealth tactics are shrewd: it's difficult to fight them. People are less likely to see and organize against incremental changes, as our rights are gradually chipped away. But by playing to his religious-right and anti-choice supporters, by putting anti-abortion-rights plans front and centre, Carolyn said, Harper has made a "fatal error" - and given us a grand opportunity.

We have to use that opportunity to make our voices heard. To speak the fuck up.

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