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HALIFAX—“We are women whose ultimate goal is the liberation of women in society,” echoes the chorus of Jane: Abortion and the Underground, a play that retells the story of an underground abortion service in Chicago. “One important way we are working towards that goal is by helping any woman who wants an abortion to get one as safely and as cheaply as possible under current conditions,” the chorus continues, reading lines from the service’s first flier.
The flier is from 1968.
Move forward to 2010 and an audience of about 200 is sitting in the MacNally Theatre at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax watching the story’s retelling and reflecting on what has changed and what has not.
The performance was a fundraiser for the conference Trust Women: A conference on reproductive justice. The need for such a conference was, for many, a surprising reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
“Because we’ve won the legal battle [on abortions] people think that the struggle is over,” says Jane Gavin-Hebert, organizer of the Trust Women conference. “But it's not."
Indeed, January 28th—the day of the conference—marked twenty-one years since the complete decriminalization of abortion.
There’s no denying that she’s right.
According to a 2007 study by Canadians for Choice entitled Reality Check, women across the country continue to face barriers in accessing abortion services. The report found that between 2003 and 2006, the number of hospitals providing abortions declined. Currently only 16 per cent of Canadian hospitals perform the simple procedure, and the majority of hospitals are in urban areas within 150 kilometers from the border.
Access in the Maritime Provinces was identified as especially poor. There are no abortion providers in Prince Edward Island, meaning women have to travel to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick for the procedure and often have to pay out of pocket.
In New Brunswick, only one hospital openly provides abortions, and the province refuses to fund abortion services at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton. Women in New Brunswick are required to obtain referrals from two doctors in order to access a publicly-funded abortion.
While abortion services in Nova Scotia are more accessible than New Brunswick and PEI, there continues to be several barriers.
“There are definite gaps in therapeutic abortion services,” says Angus Campbell, the Executive Director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre. “There are a very limited number of sites that will perform [Therapeutic Abortions] in Nova Scotia. The waiting time can be up to four weeks.”
In Nova Scotia, women are required to go through a three-step process to obtain an abortion. First, they must go to a clinic or family doctor and receive a referral, then the clinic or doctor will arrange for blood work and an ultrasound, and finally, the appointment will be scheduled. Average waiting times, says Campbell, is two to three weeks.
While about 50 per cent of abortions in Canada are performed at clinics, there are no abortion clinics in Nova Scotia.
“In Ontario all free standing clinics are covered under health care. This permits a woman to make her own appointment where she will get ultrasound, blood work and procedure, usually in one day but sometimes two days,” says Campbell. “The fact that women in Nova Scotia have to attend multiple medical appointments prior to the procedure is a barrier to accessing services.”
The abortion procedures in Nova Scotia are covered by provincial medical insurance, but despite the fact that the majority of women have to travel to Halifax for the procedure, there is no money available for travel or childcare costs. Also, women who have out of province health cards face fees anywhere from $230 to $700 for the procedure.
There is no master list available of where a woman can receive an abortion in the province, says Valerie Bellafonte, the communication director of the Nova Scotia Department of Health. The majority of therapeutic abortions in Nova Scotia are performed at the Termination of Pregnancy Unit (TPU) at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax
In Reality Check, the study’s researcher had to make five separate phone calls to Victoria General and needed to leave a voicemail in order to speak with someone in the right department. The report explains that voicemail messages may create barriers for some women.
"Some women do not have a phone or do not have a place where they may privately talk about their unwanted pregnancy. Other women have concerns about a lack of confidentiality," says the report.
For Gavin-Hebert, who is also a mother and a Masters student in gender and women’s studies at Saint Mary’s University, in order to bring about real change in reproductive justice, the struggle has to be about more than access to abortion, it also has to be about educating the public.
Last winter, the Saint Mary's chaplaincy office sponsored a presentation by the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform entitled "Echoes of the Holocaust." This presentation is an extension of the centre's Genocide Awareness Project.
“The Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) is a visual display composed of 4’x8’ (or 6’x13’) billboards which graphically compare the victims of abortion to victims of other atrocities, such as Jews in the Holocaust,” reads the website of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.
GAP debuted on campuses in 1999 at the University of British Columbia.
Joyce Arthur, coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and one of the speakers at the Trust Women conference, says that the presentations are not only unfair, but that at almost every campus that GAP has visited, students or the university, and often both, have put up a fight.
“GAP is deliberately provocative,” she says.
Many campuses have restricted or forbade GAP presentations from happening on campus.
Last February, the University of Calgary charged students with the group Campus Pro-Life with trespassing after they refused to adhere to the university’s restrictions regarding a GAP display the students organized in November 2008.
“This is not an issue about Freedom of Speech,” reads a statement from the university regarding the incident. “The paramount issues for the University are the needs to uphold its legal right to manage activities on campus, and to ensure the safety and security for the thousands of students, staff, faculty and community members on campus each day.”
In October, the Students’ Society of McGill University publicly censured an “Echoes of the Holocaust” presentation being held at McGill. The university allowed the presentation to go forward, and two students were arrested while protesting the event.
“We feel that McGill University has…failed to protect students' rights,” explains an open letter from the student union to McGill University.
“This event created a hostile environment and should not have been permitted. It is possibly most disappointing that when students' peacefully engaged in a public response to this hostile environment, they were removed through a police intervention,” the letter continues.
When it became apparent that Saint Mary’s University would be hosting one of these presentations, members of the feminist community, and other communities – such as the Atlantic Jewish Council – expressed their concerns regarding the risk of such a presentation on the health and safety of students, particularly women and Jewish students.
Ultimately, according to Gavin-Hebert, the university determined it to be a low-risk event, and the presentation went forward.
Afterward, Gavin-Hebert and another student initiated a complaint process with the university and provided some possible solutions – one of which was holding a feminist community education session.
The result was Trust Women: A conference on reproductive justice held at Saint Mary’s University on January 28.
“On campus, in this context of an anti-abortion climate, we needed to put forward a feminist analysis,” says Gavin-Hebert. “We wanted to do something that would be empowering.”
The conference included a full day of workshops for community organizers, students, and faculty, and an evening of keynote speakers .
In addition to Joyce Arthur, the evening event included presentations by Loretta Ross, a veteran feminist activist and national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, and Jessica Yee, founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.
It was important for the organizers that the conference focus on the broader topic of reproductive justice.
“We wanted to focus on abortion rights, but we know we need to go beyond that,” says Gavin-Hebert. “We need to fight for a rape free culture, for birth control, for child support and childcare, for sex worker rights. All of these things are connected.”
Kaley Kennedy is a student activist in Halifax. She has been working in the struggle for reproductive freedom since she was a teenager.
This article was produced by the Halifax Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.