I exhaled mightily when the Conservatives pledged not to re-open the federal abortion debate. I suspect many Canadian women did.
However, this relief has no permanency. It’s an uneasy reprieve that has since given way to a bone-chilling concern that I can’t shake.
That an abortion debate was even being considered should infuriate the 77% of Canadians who believe in a woman’s right to choose (1). Today, I find myself wondering when the next threat to women will come and when we’ll have to defend things like our reproductive rights, access to contraception, and the need for modern sex-ed curriculum – again.
It’s also related to why I believe in investing in free universal access to contraception, and supporting women and girls in receiving the medical services we deserve – to ensure agency of self is always at the forefront. Equality is predicated on a platform of choice, and when it starts to be taken away, equality is impossible.
When a girl is denied the education she requires to make conscious choices about her reproductive health, which can lead to STIs and unwanted pregnancies, it can stifle her ability to fully achieve all that she set out to accomplish in this lifetime. If we genuinely believe that women are equal, this also means she gets the ability to choose when to become a mother.
To understand how women are at risk, simply look to the flamethrower that has been taken to American health policy (2) in limiting access to birth control, abortion, and bolstering abstinence-only sex education. In the year leading up to our federal election, I’d caution Canadians not to be dismissive of the lunacy of U.S. health policy as something that couldn’t take root here. Just look east. Ontario seems to have found the American playbook, and the same myopic and dangerous public health policies were dangled as rewards to the base who stepped up to propel its Premier to victory. Be it allowing backbenchers to table legislation on restricting abortions (3) or scrapping the province’s 2015 sex-ed curriculum (4), including education on informed consent – the potential for regression is alive and real here in Canada.
Women and girls need to have access to all of the information required to make mindful decisions about their health and their futures. We must ensure there are no taboos when talking about sexual health, contraception, and reproductive choice and rights. We must foster a society where related questions can be asked, where science-based answers are received, and which leads into a health system that responds to these choices accordingly – free from stigma and the imposed morality of others.
This all swirls around a day that I’ve been reflecting on this week: World Contraception Day. At a time when the World Health Organization is seeking to draw awareness of all contraceptive methods (5) that enable people to make informed choices on their sexual and reproductive health – essentially where all of these conversations, disagreements, and challenges stem from – I feel like we’re still looking over our shoulders, wondering where the next threat is going to come from.
To think we are debating the benefits of age appropriate sex education, the life changing impacts of universally available free contraception, and legal access to safe abortion shows we still have a long way to go. Until these become non-negotiables, our commitment to women’s equality is… but lip service.
The degradation of reproductive rights happens slowly, in the open, and they can most assuredly be taken from us. As a nation we have a federal election coming up in just over a year. To my sisters and our allies, be vigilant.
Genesa M. Greening, CFRE
President + CEO, BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre Foundation