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Fighting for Reproductive Justice at Home and Abroad

a panel discussion

by Maya Rolbin-Ghanie

Angela Robertson, Women's College Hospital
Angela Robertson, Women's College Hospital
Fighting for Reproductive Justice at Home and Abroad

On Monday June 21st the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) held a panel discussion to discuss ways of organizing to defend abortion rights, both at home and abroad. Women from a diversity of backgrounds and origins came together to speak from their experiences and to denounce Prime Minister Steven Harper's proposed G20 Maternal and Child Health Policy, in which the government has consciously excluded the provision of abortion.

If, as the government claims, says OCAC, their purpose is to save lives and make women and children's lives better, “women must have access to a full range of reproductive choices, including abortion. The Harper government is emboldening the anti-choice minority in this country. If they are allowed to pursue the Bush-era policy of cutting funding for abortion in developing countries, they may begin to more directly attack abortion rights in Canada.”

Carolyn Egan of OCAC names just a few of these choices so integral to the health of women: the right to birth control, in our own communities, our own language; the right to a decent job; employment equity; the right for First Nations women not to have their children taken away by children's aid; the right to live freely and openly as lesbians; the right to be free from sterilization abuse.

Jessica Yee spoke on behalf of Canadians for Choice, as well as an organization that she herself founded, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. She pointed out that it also happened to be National Aboriginal Day, and that one important component often left out of discussions on reproductive health are the ongoing barriers that First Nations women living on reserves in Canada face daily when trying to control their own bodies and destinies.

“I happened to be at the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs today, and decided that I would use my ten minutes to raise a bit of hell about maternal and child health in Aboriginal communities. And—I wasn't asked to leave, but it was a real eye-opener because I had a number of people come up to me in that department who said 'I never thought about this issue. I didn't even know that maternal health was a problem on reserves.' And this is the Ministry who's supposed to be taking care of Aboriginal people and communities.”

“We have had to open our homes here in Toronto to house Aboriginal women from across Canada,” said Yee, “obviously because the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs has no idea and would rather side with Health Canada who says that everything is paid for and everything is taken care of.”

Ayesha Adhami of the Immigrant Women's Health Centre shared her experiences growing up mainly in Canada but then returning to her native Pakistan at the age of sixteen and seeing for herself the reality that the majority of women there face: illiteracy, poverty, disease, and sexual violence. Though, she said, Pakistani women are survivors. Some give up the 'luxury' of marriage to take care of their families and siblings. Yet many women who remain single are sexually assaulted. If they become pregnant from being sexually assaulted, there's no support for them.

“On the other hand, many women in poverty who do get married, go on to become 'birthing machines,' said Adhami.”They don't have access to contraceptives, or contraceptive education. It really puts their lives at risk medically, as well as their ongoing health.”

There are more than 140 million people in Pakistan. A 2009 report concluded that fourteen out of a hundred pregnancies in Pakistan end in induced abortions. Most of the women who are terminating their pregnancies are married women around thirty years old who already have several children and do not want more.

In spite of major barriers to accessing contraceptives, and a general stigma around terminating a pregnancy, abortion is technically legal in Pakistan as late as four months into a woman's pregnancy, or later, if a mother's life is at risk.

“Is it right for North American bureaucrats like Stephen Harper and his Conservative government to override the rights given to women in their own countries?” asked Adhami.

“Is it right for them to deny funding for a procedure that costs a paltry eight to twenty-one US dollars per woman? Is it right for Stephen Harper's government to trade women's lives and women's health around the globe simply to gain political currency with their Conservative supporters in Canada?”

Rhonda Roffey, of Women's Habitat pointed to the risks involved for children living in poverty who lose their mothers to complicated pregnancies.

“Harper is choosing to pick a fight with the world's most vulnerable women,” she said. “Pregnancy can be a death sentence.”

Roffey examined the various strategies she has seen employed over the last twenty five years by 'anti-choicers.'

“They've come at it from lots of different angles, and I would argue that this is just their latest one,” she said.

“First of all they told us that God doesn't like it. And that didn't work for very many of us because we didn't really care. Then they told us that abortion was murder, and so we were murdering a baby, but none of us believed that because we looked at science and we said, 'not really.' Abortion causes breast cancer, apparently, and there's a whole long chain of rationale that get you there that I won't even get into because they don't actually get you there. Um, Abortion causes domestic violence as well, apparently. Don't forget about post-abortion syndrome. There's that to worry about too. 'Cause that leads to suicide and all kinds of other terrible things. Then there was 'kill a pregnant woman and get two murder charges.' And then there's shooting abortion providers, which was used as—to threaten people, so they could attack access instead of the legality of it.”

The Harper government's strategy of attacking abortion by targeting women in 'developing' countries, she said, is completely transparent.

“Cloaking this ideological agenda in concern for maternal health is as evil as this government has gotten.”

Kelly Holloway spoke about her time as a student organizer who mobilized opposition to the anti-choice Genocide Awareness Project (The GAP) targeting her university, and the rise of anti-choice student groups on campus over the last ten years. She described 'six-foot posters of dead fetuses' beside pictures of the holocaust.

“The comparison they are making,” she said, “is that abortion is genocide.”

“Students that actually had experienced genocide have expressed how hateful, and historically inaccurate they find this to be.”

When Holloway attended York University, she and others informed the organizers of an event that was planned which would give The GAP a presence at their student centre, that they should not give resources to an organization that threatened the rights of students.

In the following weeks, the campus newspaper featured a picture of Holloway driving a tank and running over protesters. The mainstream media reacted similarly. She and her colleagues were accused of being opposed to freedom of speech.

“This controversy was not actually about freedom of speech, but about a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, and the very concerted campaign to threaten that right,” said Holloway.

The final speaker of the evening was Angela Robertson from the Women's College Hospital.

“What are the tentacles that this current debate around choice is tied so intricately to, as we witness this globalization conference, here in this city?...We are tied to women in an international struggle. And not tied in the colonial sense, where we become the defenders of women's rights in the south. But we are tied in solidarity, in defending our rights and being in solidarity with women internationally as they defend their right to lives as well.”

Curious as to why tens of thousands are protesting the G8/G20 summits?  Go to for up to the minute G20 and G8 Summit Protest Reporting, straight 'outta the Alternative Media Centre!

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Maya (Maya Rolbin-Ghanie)
Member since June 2008


I grew up in the woods in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I am of mixed ethnicity. I love dogs so much it's hard to handle. I am a freelance creative writer and journalist. I have issues with patience and need to work on my skills in dealing with bureaucracy.

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