Joyce Arthur is the Founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. She has been an abortion rights and pro-choice activist since 1998. Arthur worked for 10 years running the Pro-Choice Action Network. In addition to these accomplishments, she founded FIRST or the first national feminist group advocating for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalization prostitution in Canada. Here we look into her work and philosophy.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was activism and feminist philosophy part of growing up for you?
Joyce Arthur: I was raised in a conservative Christian home but had strong feminist leanings by about age 9 or 10 and was also very interested in science. My parents did not monitor my reading and I was an avid reader. I discovered the theory of evolution around age 12 and it was an exciting epiphany. I’ve always been very independent-minded and could hardly wait to be an adult, as I recognized that children were at the mercy of their parents and that really chafed with me. Although I hasten to add that I had a happy childhood and my parents were good people. I was also lucky in that our family was a bit more liberal than some others in the church (Canadian Reformed).
Jacobsen: What were pivotal moments in your life trajectory into becoming a women’s rights activist in Canada?
Arthur: In 1972, I was 15 years old. One morning after church, we were all standing outside chatting like usual. The pastor went around and asked everyone of voting age to sign a petition – to repeal the 1969 law that legalized abortion! It was the first time I had ever considered the issue. My immediate thought was: “I think women can have an abortion if they want to.” I said nothing and was not asked to sign the petition because I was underage, but watched as everyone around me did without hesitation, all in agreement that abortion was obviously wrong and must be prohibited. I realized then I was different from everyone else there and didn’t belong. I left home at age 17.
The second thing was having an abortion myself in 1988. Up to that point, I wasn’t very political, except in the fight against teaching creationism in public school science classes. When I went to my gynecologist and discovered that a committee of doctors would decide whether I could have an abortion, I was rather shocked. However, because it was Vancouver, I was lucky – they basically rubber-stamped abortion applications at VGH. But that was not the case for many other women across Canada as I later learned. And I started to feel angry that this decision was not ultimately up to me, or them.
Ironically, while I was waiting the long weeks for my committee-approved abortion, the 1969 law was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and Dr. Henry Morgentaler was making headlines. I don’t actually remember any of that at the time. I guess the personal was not yet political for me, and I was too involved with dealing with my own problems, such as all-day morning sickness.
About 6 months after my abortion, I happened to stumble across a pro-choice rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery. My interest was piqued and I joined the group hosting the rally, the BC Coalition for Abortion Clinics. I gradually became more involved until I was eventually leading the group. It later became the Pro-Choice Action Network.
Jacobsen: Can you relay some of the notable instances within your own life and in Canada of bigger victories for the independence and autonomy of women not only in law but in social life and culture as well?
Arthur: In Canada generally, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been a huge boost for women’s rights. It was the Charter that made it possible to strike down the abortion law (under the right to security of the person) and it’s the Charter that continues to protect abortion rights and other women’s rights. Since 1988, there’s been huge strides in abortion rights and access, with many new clinics opening, the funding of all private clinics (except one in NB which we’re still fighting for), and an increase in public support for women’s rights and abortion rights. We had a 10-year setback with the Harper government, but it’s refreshing to have a Trudeau-led Liberal government that is not afraid to stand up and defend reproductive rights, as well as LGBT rights.
Jacobsen: You won a case against the abortion-counseling organizations. How did you first find out about them?
Arthur: The Pro-choice Action Network did a study that looked at “crisis pregnancy centres” in BC and more generally across North America. We were sued by a Christian group that operated two of these centres in the Vancouver metro area. We had collected some literature from them that showed they misinformed women about abortion and other issues, but we didn’t mention them in our report at all, except for a list in the Appendices. But based on a small section of the report where we described some tactics of CPCs across North America, they sued me on the basis that their centres didn’t engage in those specific tactics. Our report did not claim that, so I won the lawsuit. It was against me personally, because by then the Pro-Choice Action Network had closed. (Here’s a story I wrote about the lawsuit: http://rabble.ca/columnists/2013/09/anti-choice-centres-lose-lawsuit-what-does-it-all-mean)
Jacobsen: Now, you are the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. How did you find out about the organization and earn the position? Also, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Arthur: After leading the Pro-Choice Action Network in BC for years, I realized there were a lot of pressing national issues to deal with, and not so many provincial issues anymore. My plan was to take our group national, but in the end, I formed a totally new organization. I led some consultations, and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada was founded at a meeting in Montreal in April 2005 under my leadership. Our official launch was in October 2005 at a Parliament press conference. I led the group as “Coordinator” until 2007 when we became incorporated and have served as the Executive Director since then.
My position involves public advocacy, leading campaigns, lobbying politicians, helping grassroots activists with local campaigns, working with volunteers, communicating with members/supporters, networking with other reproductive rights groups, maintaining our Facebook page and website, and many other things.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved with the organization through volunteering, donating money, providing skills, helping with professional and social networking, and so on?
Arthur: It’s easy (and cheap!) to join ARCC: http://www.arcc-cdac.ca/membership.html. Since we are not a charity, it makes fundraising more challenging, and we operate on a very small budget. Please support our political activism! We also have a ‘Take Action’ page that I invite people to check out: http://www.arcc-cdac.ca/take_action.html. We welcome volunteers, although much of the work involves things like research, writing/editing, graphic design, etc. Not so much on-the-ground work. Also, people can follow our Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up with the latest news and campaigns:
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Arthur: It’s essential that we never be complacent despite our successes in Canada. On the world stage, Canada is currently a leader in reproductive rights. We are the only country in the world (besides China) with no abortion law, and we’ve proved we don’t need one. But that doesn’t mean that everything is safe, as we’ve seen with Trump in charge below the border, and China forging ahead with its global power agenda that does not value human rights. Right-wing and authoritarian forces are on the upswing. Canada should be not become an outlier in respecting women’s rights and reproductive rights. This stance must be spread throughout the world, and we need to constantly beat back the forces of oppression. Even in Canada, because the Conservatives will likely be back some day.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Joyce.
Arthur: My pleasure!
Image Credit: Joyce Arthur.