It’s Time to Change the Conversation About Abortion

Katie Bowers

Watching the American Republican primaries is kind of like watching a train crash from afar – it’s horrifying yet intriguing. Most importantly, I’m not personally involved, as a Canadian who will soon be safely tucked behind Mr. Trump’s enormous border wall.

However, that feeling of safety from a distance begins to fade when the topic of Planned Parenthood rises. First, I get angry watching a bunch of men yelling at each other about the best practices for women’s health. Then, I get scared. I get scared because despite living in a different country, the language and tone used in discussions surrounding abortion creates stigma that is not contained by international borders.

All four candidates left in the Republican primary have vowed to defund Planned Parenthood, as did all of the other candidates who have left the race. In fact, Jeb Bush made Planned Parenthood central to his campaign. At a rally last August, he said, “they’re [Planned Parenthood] not actually doing women’s health issues.” He is, of course, referencing abortion services. Republicans want to defund Planned Parenthood in order to stop federal money from paying for abortions the clinics provide to low- and middle-income women. Mr. Bush is ignoring to the fact that of the two federal health transfer payments, Title X and Medicaid, only Medicaid can fund abortions and only in extreme cases. Defunding Planned Parenthood would not stop abortions. It would simply make them less accessible to women of lower socio-economic status while also reducing their access to other critical health services such as cancer screenings.

But I think this still misses the large point, even in casual discussions. We recognize the provision of contraception, pap tests, and other sexual health screenings as women’s health but often refer to abortion as an issue about choices. Like Mr. Bush, many people discuss abortion in terms of rights and choices and morality.

That conversation needs to change. Abortion is a matter of women’s health.

While that conversation doesn’t play out to the same dramatic extent in Canadian politics, it still alive and common in this country. Abortion was decriminalized in 1988 in Canada. Under the Canada Health Act, the provinces are required to provide patients with medically necessary services. Between 1995 and 2005, the governing Federal Liberal Party deemed abortion a medically necessary service. While the following Conservative government did not move to criminalize abortion again, they did not advocate for it either. Without federal legislation to entrench the legal status of abortions, it is always possible that access to services could change with the political tide.

Take the Canadian Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative brought forward by the Conservative-led Government as part of Canada’s contribution to the Millennium Development Goals that aim to reduce poverty in the global south. The program proved to be highly successful as many developing countries that participated in the program saw increases in maternal visits to physicians, improved childhood vaccination rates, and health worker training programs, in addition to many other initiatives. However, the program was also heavily criticized because money from the Muskoka Initiative was barred from flowing to organizations that provided abortion services, even in countries where the procedure is legal.

Last week, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced that Canada would continue its support for maternal health initiatives abroad. The program also continues the tradition of failing to provide funding for abortion services abroad. This effectively doubles the hypocrisy of Canada’s stance on abortions. When the Conservatives initially launched the Muskoka Initiative in 2010, the Liberal Party was critical of the decision to not fund abortion services – going so far as to include it in their election platform.

Ms. Bibeau says the government intends to expand on the funding, possibly to include abortion services in the future, but was unable to give any details or potential timelines. Given the current Zika crisis unfolding in South and Latin America, I find this pretty concerning.

Zika is a virus carried by a certain type of mosquito and has been linked to microcephaly (a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development) in newborn children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. Little is known or understood about the Zika virus, which is sweeping through parts of the developing world and turning into a full-blown epidemic, almost reminiscent of the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To further complicate the situation, abortion is illegal in many countries where Zika is most prevalent. This is best exemplified by El Salvador, where public health officials have recommended women avoid pregnancy for at the next two years, and abortion is punishable by up to forty years in prison.

It is at the nexus of all these complicated issues that causes fear to well up in my throat as I watch the Republican presidential hopefuls promise to defund Planned Parenthood. Abortion services in the U.S. wouldn’t disappear but it entrenches the view that it is socially acceptable to continue discussing abortion as an issue of morality rather than of health.

The morality argument resonates in Canada as well. There are no federal laws protecting abortion rights in Canada and no political party will ever want to touch the issue because it is controversial. It’s controversial because we permit people to talk about an issue of women’s health as an issue of morality. It is one of the few public policy issues where we still permit morality to encroach on individual rights.

Worst of all, we have allowed this debate about morality to influence our international development policy. Programs like the Muskoka Initiative fail to address the full range of women’s health issues abroad because such issues “controversial”. By failing to advocate for abortion services in the global south, we are promoting public policy programs that fail to protect the health and lives of women throughout the developing world.

Katie Bowers is a 2017 MPP candidate at the University of Toronto. Previously, she completed an undergrad in Political Science at UBC and worked as an intern in the BC Legislature. She is interested in health policy, foreign policy, international development, and travelling around the world.

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