In Conversation with Professor Colleen MacQuarrie, Ph.D. on Abortion Rights Activism

Image Credit: UPEI/Colleen MacQuarrie.

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Professor Colleen MacQuarrie, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island. Also, she is a media contact for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. Here we talk about abortion rights activism.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You have worked in abortion rights activism as well as a researcher in Canada. So, I wanted to get a perspective historically as well as presently into what is happening and what happened regarding abortion in Canada.

Professor Colleen MacQuarrie: With regards to abortion research in Canada, there are a number of different answers to that question depending on the regional focus. When you look across Canada, there is patchy access to abortion.

So, abortion research could be focusing on the barriers and the policy changes needed to address those barriers. In my own research, in 2010, I understood the local context. I think that is one of the most important pieces when you are working from a social justice process.

You need to know the local context because it is a matter of head and heart, or head, heart, and hands. Unpacking that academically, that means that there may be a certain evidence base. There may be a certain policy environment, but often the link between that would be community attitudes, standards, ideas, and notions.

Which would then be influenced by a whole interlocking set of assumptions in this case with women, pre-formed understandings of what women will do, enforced motherhood, notions of morality that concern governing women’s bodies and women’s bodily autonomy; within the context of PEI, I that context well; being immersed here as a feminist activist.

I am 52 years old now. I have been involved with feminist organizations in this place for little more than 35 years or so. I understood the complexity of the culture around abortion and stigma and the history of how we lost abortion access in the 80s.

I started from the networks here in the local community and pooled together the research advisory group from the existing network of abortion activists. I also had achieved tenure at my university; I was using the dual-privileges of tenure and academic freedom to create a politically engaged research project.

I knew without tenure academic freedom was meaningless. I had to wait. In hindsight, that was really smart. The University of PEI, universities in this region have a long religious root that did attempt to trip me when I was launching the research by putting pressure on the university administration to stop the research.

What we had were a series of longstanding pleas from feminist organizations such as the Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Women’s Network, Canadian Abortion Rights Access League – which had been defunct by the time I started – the PEI Rape Crisis Centre, PEI Transition House, and so on.

You had these organizations pleading for abortion access. I came across the idea that a liberation psychology project would probably be the right approach to do research on this project. I used community collaborative action research approaches.

I constructed a research advisory group. Together, with the community, I started to devise a project that would look at ultimately framing research as a way forward for a policy change – a phenomenological approach to change PEIs abortion policies.

I framed it discursively within health and discursively within the experience of people’s health. I was moving decidedly away from any notions of whether abortion is good or bad. Who the hell cares? That is not what we are asking here.

“Here we are, this is ground zero. What is it like being a woman over the last 20 years and needing an abortion?” The results were astounding. There was a diversity – in terms of age, SES, professionalism – there was a lot of diversity on the research team. We were cutting across a number of different sectors. Fascinatingly, when people came forward – at first, there was an expectation of reluctance of coming forward.

We launched in 2011. Within 3 days, we had more than 600 hits to the call for participants from more than 11 countries around the world. The tinder had been sitting there. The match was struck. It was an amazing, amazing response.

People wanted to talk because they hadn’t been able to tell their story. It was because we asked to have the stories told to change policy, not because they hadn’t told them in a decade or two. Fast forward, within research as you know, if you have overwhelming evidence in the early preliminary analyses, that shows harms, you have a duty to report early findings.

By the end of 2012, we had sufficient evidence of substantial harms that were happening to women and women’s health, and substantial lapses in the medical system when women were presenting to emergency rooms at the hospital for support for abortions that had gone wrong.

There was almost every woman who came forward that talked about self-harm. One of the first thoughts, if you are a woman in PEI during those decades, is “what am I going to do?” Poor and more marginalized women resort to more dire acts to try to bring back their periods.

Women who were poorer, or in dire circumstances – were more likely to try poisons or other self harm. Anything to try to ingest something to do enough harm to the body to bring about an end to the pregnancy, but not to die.

Even women that you would think that would have lots of access to resources, 30-year-old women who were university educated and were searching on the internet: “How can I get an abortion if I live in PEI?” But they couldn’t. Women were faced with being pregnant and trying to finish school and/or already parenting a child or children they were struggling to care for.

A woman confided she imagined walking out into traffic to cause just enough harm to her body to bring about an abortion. These kinds of stories were not uncommon. I’m sorry this is so distressing.

Jacobsen: No, no, it’s okay.

MacQuarrie: Also, we started to look into the government’s own records. We found -through a Freedom of Information Act; there were illegal abortions that were being documented by the system when women were presenting for help at physician offices and the hospital.

In two cases, suspicious deaths, there are so many wrinkles here because the coroner at the time was an ardent anti-abortion person. So, when I had a conversation with him about the two cases where a toxicologist was brought in and where the RCMP were called in, he quickly dismissed.

He said, “Oh no, it wasn’t because they were attempting an abortion.” But there were documented cases in the province’s own records going back to 1996. There were documented incidents of illegal abortions where renal failure had happened, where intense medical care was ongoing.

There was evidence within the provincial billing system as well as evidence from our own study. Also, some pretty dire things happening at the time of the study. So, in the months leading up to when we released our preliminary findings, we were finding fresh accounts from women who had just been at the emergency room and had not been treated with care for their abortion that was going wrong.

It was a medical abortion in those cases. We presented those cases in 2013- the preliminary results calling for action from the health system, specifically better supports from women who were sourcing their own medical abortions.

At that time, they were using a cocktail of off label prescription drugs – mifepristone and misoprostol, which was before RU-486 was approved by Health Canada in, I guess, 2016 in the Fall.

Unfortunately, at every point along the way from the release of findings trying to use the evidence to show the health system the harms that were befalling us, there was a callous indifference from our government leaders.

You can look it up yourself from the CBC news reports at the time – that they’d say, “Not everybody agrees with abortion, so we’re not going to have them here.”

It is a fascinating story of how entrenched the anti-abortion discourse was here because somehow or other politicians could cavalierly say, “Sure, some women are getting hurt. But, my God, some people don’t want to have abortion here,” as if that was a good enough compromise.

Jacobsen: This brings up an associated question, which is like a premise underneath the conversation so far. It has two parts. On the one side, what seems like the fair representation of the anti-abortion argument as well as the source of it, e.g. social, finance, and moral concerns? 

How did that become that dominant at that time – where we are in the discussion so far?

MacQuarrie: The premise or the dominant discourse in PEI at the time that was in the media. That the politicians were spouting was “it is a special place. It is a life sanctuary. This is not a place where abortions happen.”

There was almost as if you think about a jewel in an anti-abortion crown – PEI is one. The notion or idea of life sanctuary was part of the marketing image of the organizations like the PEI Right to Life organization.

The dominant discourse is that abortion is murder. That abortion is also abetting a crime, is a murder. That it is not a choice. It is a baby. That, basically, life/birth begins at conception and, therefore, it is a human being and not a choice.

Those were the dominant discourses circulating. How did it become so prevalent? That is a very good question. I think it is partly understood by looking at bounded geographical spaces such as islands and looking at the notions of separateness and being apart.

It is connected to the conflation of religiosity. PEI has, I think, 97% of the population identifying with either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant religions. Performance in religion is a part of the fabric of how people do things in PEI.

People who may not be particularly religious might still want to be religiously affiliated because it is about performance and fitting in. PEI is the most densely populated province in Canada. It is a small province, 140,000 people.

There is a sense everybody knows your business. Your actions reflect on your family. Also, the fact that PEI is in itself, the entire province, is a diocese of the Catholic Church. The bishop here has been involved from the early days in decreeing abortion a sin.

So, there has been a very strong emphasis on obeying God as part of keeping abortion away from here. There is that. That has been happening. How did it become so entrenched in systems of government?

For a while in PEI, you had to run a Catholic and Protestant in every riding in order to get elected. Religion and commitment to religion were entwined within the political landscape. What should be secular, it never really was secular.

If you look across time, there has been this conflation of church and state in the legislation. Historically, in the early 80s, when the right to life associations across North America were amping up the eradication of abortion access by targeting hospital and therapeutic abortion committees.

That fight came to PEI when first the Catholic hospital. The medical system or the health system was also divided. The education and the medical and the political systems were all aligned with faith organizations.

So, the Catholic and the protestant hospital were amalgamated in the early 80s to create one large non-secular hospital.

Jacobsen: Even for that other 3%, whatever the terms for those alternative faiths or non-faiths, do they orient themselves within the same positions of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Church in PEI?

MacQuarrie: The research does not speak to that because the demographic is so tiny. I can theorize about that.

Jacobsen: Please do.

MacQuarrie: I do not think that you would rock the boat. There are so many anti-immigrant and xenophobic tendencies. There is so much xenophobia here. That you just wouldn’t rock the boat on that.

So, when the hospital was being merged, there was an effort to eradicate abortion access in the newly merged hospital. That was a long and rancorous public battle that ended up with having the therapeutic abortion committee being taken out of the hospital.

That win taught the anti-abortion movement here how to launch a successful campaign. Then the effort turned to the last abortion committee in the province, Prince County Hospital. That meeting to eradicate abortion access is still living in the memories of the women – the 4 or 5 women who spoke out for abortion rights. They remember that as a very hostile and terrifying time.

Jacobsen: I reflect on Human Rights Watch saying, “Equitable access to safe abortion services is first and foremost a human right.”

So, individuals or organizations – who are often religious – that hold a pro-life position that would deny equitable and safe access to abortion amount to anti-human rights positions, which is troubling to start.

MacQuarrie: Right. They do not see an individual. The PEI response to the Morgentaler ruling was basically that the rest of Canada may learn from PEI which they bragged about in 1988 on March 30th – the Morgentaler Ruling came down January 28th in 1988 – effectively opening the door to abortion access as a constitutional issue. The PEI Legislature on March 30th passed its own Resolution 17 declaring ours an anti-abortion or an anti-choice province. Originally, Resolution 17 said that even the life of the mother, which harkens back to the way things were in Ireland, would not warrant an abortion.

An amendment said that if a mother’s life was in danger then an abortion would be permissible, but all other circumstances. PEI did declare itself anti-abortion based on the ruling of the constitution. That is what we took them to court on and won based on the Morgentaler Ruling.

We needed years of evidence and 105 points of law before we could actually get the province into court. We had to take them to court to acknowledge that abortion services should be provided in the province. Fascinatingly, once the province decided not to fight us on the case which we launched on January 5th, 2017, they went above and beyond.

They said that we will provide a whole set of health services for women and others including sexual and reproductive health services including transgender health. Abortion is just the tip of the iceberg quite frankly when we are talking about gender autonomy rights here. As alluded to before we started taping, PEI has a high rate of domestic violence in heterosexual relationships. But I suspect if you look at child abuse rates that you might see high rates also, but it is so horribly underreported. So violence and control are major political issues here.

So the root of violence and control here is partly why PEI was able to have such a tradition of politicians just run as a member of a faith organization for a political party and be elected and then stand in the house and to voice to the entire house their anti-woman stance. Resolution 17 – it was unanimous and all-party agreement that PEI was an anti-abortion province. The Minister of Education during that time period sanctioned the busing of every single grade 7 student to the University of PEI for a mass screening of The Silent Scream; A lecture about the sanctity of life and the handing out of little feet pins to show the little feet of fetuses and the request that all children continue to wear those to hold up the sanctity of life, and that they would let other people know what they had seen there including their parents.

Of course, at the time, there were a number of mothers active in the choice campaign in trying to hold onto abortion. They felt they had to withdraw from the activism for abortion because they feared retribution for their children at school in bullying.

So, there was a cultural impingement upon advocacy and voice. It really is an elegant example of how oppression operates and sustains itself and continues to create silence. When we launched the campaign in 2010 to have a research project, that would examine and interrogate those taken-for-granted notions that abortion is murder and instead frame it as a women’s health issue and instead collect stories of that, it was very threatening to the status quo that had just assumed that we would never have abortion here.

Jacobsen: If you focus on religion in this instance, the religious organizations such as the Catholic Church. They seem to have a strong position, in their terminology, of pro-life regarding abortion and women’s reproductive health rights. 

There are other groups, even within the Abrahamic traditions and the Christian traditions in particular, who have a more liberal orientation such as the United Church of Canada, which, as you know, was the first, I think, to allow women ministers.

MacQuarrie: Also gay.

Jacobsen: Also gay… on that view, it can be seen as the progressive movement within the Christian community in the country. What the United Church of Canada allows, as it is the edge of Christian culture, broadly speaking, that is what Christian culture would allow. What are sects of Christianity friendly to women’s health issues in the sense that they are more or less pro-choice?

MacQuarrie: Rightly, you name the United Church, but also we have to think of diversity and complexity within Catholicism. We brought in – I was a baby feminist at the time…

Jacobsenn: [Laughing].

MacQuarrie: Catholics for Choice, we had a nun come in and speak about the importance of women’s health. We were working with the disparate voices that were willing to come forward. I mean, the cavalier attitude of the leadership of the church went so far as to simply take out pages in the newspaper that just simply printed every church members’ name as standing with the church.

There were many citizens who never agreed to have their name published in that way. The Diocese wanted to make it appear as if it was a solid block of resistance to the community standards violated and sustained regarding abortion.

Status of Women did some polling that showed that many people thought that abortion should be restricted, but there was about 60% of the population that thought in some circumstances it should be allowed.

It was only the leadership, the politicians and the church leaders, who portrayed it as this monolithic impasse. Unfortunately, they wielded a lot of power in all different kinds of ways. Also, when we get back to the geographic and bounded nature of this as well, there is a sense that everyone knows your business.

You may personally feel very confident and proud. They didn’t want to jeopardize their family, their kids, their husband, their business; they didn’t want to be ostracized. An ostracization is a tool and a technique of control. That works in small places like this.

So, I think that the reasons are multifaceted and interconnected and form this fascinating case study of what does it take to undo these kinds of cultural and community suppression. Quite frankly, it takes small and dedicated groups working away to show evidence.

But even when we showed evidence, it took a legal system that could respond. So, if we hadn’t had the macrostructure of Canadian jurisdiction, where federal criminal law applied and the Morgentaler Ruling supporting our constitutional rights, if we didn’t have the structure of the Canada Health Act and the way the provinces must respond to that, we would have to use a different set of strategies. The federal/provincial relationships actually allowed the province to sidestep the constitution with regard to health care, but not when we were able to get enough resources and support to challenge that. It has always been unconstitutional for us not to have an abortion here but it took years for us to challenge the province and take it to the court system. If we had taken the province to court prior to our collaborative community engagement, the province might have conceded the court case but might not have offered up the abortion services in the manner they did.

What made the difference was the community mobilization along with this larger macrostructure as well as a chronosystem, where, perhaps, in Canada at that time, it was seen to be a shifting of what happened to politicians when they supported abortion.

In the neighboring province of New Brunswick, a liberal premier had just been elected who had proclaimed himself pro-choice. I think there is a whole constellation of factors that fed into how things were able to shift in 2017.

Jacobsen: Because it is 2017.

MacQuarrie: [Laughing] I said it first by the way. VICE interviewed me about the research we were doing. I talked about the callous indifference of the politician and trying to compromise women’s health against someone’s view that abortion was immoral. I said, “It is 2015, time for that to end.”

It took another while. There have always been resisters. There’s always pockets of resistance no matter where you look.

Jacobsen: I know a guy named Paul Krassner who published The Realist for decades. He did interviews with Lenny Bruce. Same crowd as Mort Sahl. He ran an underground abortion referral service when it was illegal.

MacQuarrie: We were helping women to go to the mainland to get an abortion for a long time. There was resistance in terms of helping women to leave. A resistance in the sense that we are going to make it fair that you can have an abortion.

But ultimately, I think that that form of support is a bit like charity. It doesn’t shift the system. It doesn’t challenge the system. Ultimately, what you need to be doing is exposing that vile underbelly, the system is meeting its needs by harming the most vulnerable.

I think that if you are constantly doing charity work then you miss the opportunity to challenge the status quo. You have to do both. You can’t walk away from somebody who is in dire need and say, “Yes, I am going to let you drown while I walk upstream and see who is throwing people in.”

You have to do both. You have to do resistance during all times oppression.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor MacQuarrie.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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