My heart sank when I heard about the leaked U.S. Supreme Court's draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade. The news didn't come as a surprise. Since Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, women's rights advocates have known this was a threatening possibility.
Still, to think of the blood, sweat and tears of countless activists, friends and colleagues who worked first to achieve and then protect Roe v. Wade, only to witness the reversal of abortion rights legislation that’s almost 50 years old – the heartache is real. To think of the women, adolescent girls, lower-income, undocumented, BIPOC, trans and non-binary pregnant people in the U.S. who will bear the brunt of this decision, who will have fewer rights than those who came before them – the heartbreak makes it hard to breathe.
The Roe v. Wade reversal will have harmful ripple effects beyond U.S. borders. Anti-democratic and anti-gender actors, already well-resourced and mobilized, will be further emboldened to push through their anti-rights agendas. Abortion misinformation campaigns, already prevalent, will continue to percolate. Many people wonder what the chances are of a similar legislative rollback happening in Canada. While abortion is decriminalized in the country – creating the grounds for it to be treated like any other healthcare procedure – in practice, accessing safe and timely abortion care continues to be incredibly difficult for many Canadians.
Abortion in Canada
Access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and services in Canada has been underfunded for decades. The pandemic has only exacerbated this situation. There are significant disparities between rural and urban access to abortion. In provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, abortion is only available in urban centres, despite 35 to 40 per cent of the population living in rural or remote communities. This results in logistical, geographical and financial barriers to many people accessing timely and safe abortion services.
Anti-abortion movements, moreover, are all too active in Canada. There are more anti-abortion organizations or “crisis pregnancy centers” that provide misinformation about abortion or pregnancy options than abortion clinics in the country.
These trends can understandably fuel feelings of pessimism and despair. Yet, those working on the frontlines of reproductive justice know that this work requires going up against entrenched social norms and patriarchal structures. The work is never really done. There’s always the risk of pushback or rollback.
Advancing Reproductive Rights Around the World
While these risks are real, there have also been tremendous opportunities and wins thanks to the work of feminist and women's rights organizations worldwide. These are but a few instances of real, tangible gains:
- In 2018, 66 per cent of Ireland's population voted in a referendum to overturn the country's abortion ban.
- Argentina liberalized its abortion laws in December 2020.
- In 2021, the Mexican Supreme Court decriminalized abortion, ruling that it's unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime.
Achieving sexual and reproductive rights, especially in terms of protecting or expanding access to safe abortion, requires ongoing work, diligence and persistence from feminist activists on the ground, making it fundamental to support women’s rights organizations and their gender justice work.
We see important inroads being made through our programming. Through funding from the Her Future Choice (HFHC) program, in Canada Birth Mark is training new abortion doulas across the country to help facilitate safe abortion access. HFHC partners in Malawi, despite resistance and roadblocks at the parliamentary level, continue to expand legislative grounds for abortion by advocating for the Termination of Pregnancy Bill. And in Mozambique, community health workers, like Domingas, have been working to raise awareness about how to access abortion services. Although the country liberalized its abortion law in 2014, many people still don't know about these legislative changes, including most people in Domingas' community, Milange.
Domingas learned about Mozambique expanding its laws to guarantee free and safe abortion when she attended an HFHC training session.
“In the training I took, not only I learnt about the circumstances and period in which you can have an abortion,” Domingas says, “but I also learnt that we don’t have to pay for it and that our health facilities in the countryside also provide safe abortion.”
She has started telling others in her community about sexual and reproductive health services and getting them up to date on the country’s abortion law. This includes 16-year-old Jacinta, who was able to have a free and safe abortion in a health facility near her home. Domingas' work is already paying off: "Today, I feel happy supporting many other women."
It’s hard to believe we are in a post-Roe v. Wade world. It’s painful. More than ever, abortion rights activists, mobilizers and service providers need our support. This is how we keep breathing through the heartache, this is how we honour the work and efforts of women’s rights advocates past and present. This is how we move forward.
Lara Cousins is a Women's Rights Knowledge Specialist at Oxfam Canada.