Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is an abortion doula and Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of Alberta. She is the author of the Humanist Ceremonies Handbook (Humanist Press, 2018) and the upcoming The Companion: An Abortion Doula Handbook. You can visit her at her website www.electriceelpond.com. Here we talk about accessibility.
By Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson
“Why do you have to drive around Alberta? I thought we [Canadians] could get abortions anywhere.” – Annabelle
If I had a penny, Annabelle…though, I guess Canada phased out pennies so maybe a nickel? Basically, you’ve just asked a variation of the second most common question I get from people. After asking me what an abortion doula does, people almost always ask me why I would be needed in Canada. The answer, or rather answers, lie in two different misunderstandings – what an abortion doula does and what abortion access is really like in Canada.
I’m actually going to start with that second misunderstanding – knowing what abortion access is like in Canada. Like most people around the world, Annabelle, you probably see Canada as a sort of beacon of reason in a batshit crazy world. Canada is often romanticized as a sort of liberal paradise where racism and sexism are rare and access to abortion is a given. And you would be forgiven for thinking these things! Canada is like any other country in that it does its fair share to keep up a certain appearance and the narrative of the Great Liberal North is a strong one that the state uses to shore up their image. Like all narratives, there is some truth to it. Canada, for instance, has absolutely no laws about abortion which is a way of saying that abortion is not a legal issue (beyond establishing someone’s right to it) and is, in fact, a medical issue existing between a person and their doctor. With my mother country to the south proposing and passing literally hundreds of anti-abortion laws over the last twenty years, Canada easily looks like a paradise of reproductive freedom by contrast.
But what good is a right if someone cannot easily access that right? What good does it do Canadians to have the established legal right to reproductive health care if too many barriers exist to make it practicable? The sad truth is that while Canadians are proud of their perceived unfettered right to abortion, too many barriers exist for most of the country to safely access it. To begin with, Canada is an enormous country, most of it rural. When it comes to abortion, this shouldn’t matter. Even rural areas have doctors and many have hospitals. However, many small communities still experience massive stigma when it comes to reproductive health care and the few doctors brave enough to offer abortion care often don’t make it well known. Their fears are not mere fantasy. Let’s remember that Canadian doctors have faced harassment and have even been murdered for offering a full spectrum of health care to their patients.
But let’s say you live in Edmonton like I do. There’s a clinic here and they’re awesome about getting people in within the week, if possible. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that while Edmontonians may not face geographical barriers to abortion care, they face many more invisible barriers such as racism, poverty, discrimination against gender identity, and the rampant misinformation put out by pregnancy care centers. For instance, if you are indigenous, you have a cultural history of interference by the medical establishment that may make you rightly suspicious of doctors. It may be hard to find culturally sensitive care. If you are economically disadvantaged, you may have trouble finding someone who can watch your kids for half a day while you wait in the clinic or you may not easily be able to afford taking a day off work. If you are trans or non-binary, you may fear being misgendered or dealing with insensitive medical personnel, not to mention just be exhausted at the thought of having to constantly educate everyone about your needs while you’re trying to navigate the system. And even if you’re a straight, cis, white woman with time off and childcare, you have local barriers too. Most people when they find out they are pregnant and want an abortion turn to Google. Typing in “abortion (city name)” brings up a host of pregnancy care centers, none of which offer medically accurate information about abortion (or anything damn else) and who will attempt to talk you out of abortion care by claiming that you will get cancer or commit suicide. I often think it’s astonishing that people even make it as far as finding me after all this. I hate to think of those who have gotten lost on the way and are now giving birth unwillingly to children they can’t care for or don’t want.
And this brings us to that first misunderstanding – what an abortion doula does. When people do manage to find me, my job is more than simply giving them a ride to the clinic or holding their hand while in the office. Often my job is to use what privilege I have to smooth the path toward abortion care for them. Sometimes it means finding that childcare they need in order to make it to their appointment. Sometimes it is familiarizing myself with someone’s pronouns and medical needs so that I can run interference and lessen the emotional labour usually required of them. Often it is driving around Alberta, picking up patients in areas too remote to have a doctor who is willing to offer care. And the work continues beyond the client. If I am really invested in what I do (and I am) then I am continuously reading up on reproductive justice, and gender theory, listening to my trans friends talk about their struggles with health care and asking questions, learning about the indigenous people of my amazing new adoptive country. Being an abortion doula is all-encompassing, even if you technically control your own hours, so to speak because once you become involved with real people experiencing the real consequences of a society that marginalizes and stigmatizes them, you can’t look away, even when you’re “off the clock”.
Annabelle, I sincerely hope that I’ve given you a startling picture of what abortion access is really like in this country we love living in. The bad news is that things are not so great at the moment. Anti-Abortion groups in the United States and their Canadian allies are working very hard to ensure that people are denied access to health care. They believe that denying access results in more births and reluctantly happy new parents. But my experience with rural patients has been that it simply creates more and more second-trimester abortions because if someone doesn’t want to be pregnant, they will not stay pregnant. Delaying care only makes people more desperate.
But the good news is that together we have enormous power. My dream is that we can convince more and more rural doctors to offer a full spectrum of care to their patients and I think that we can do this by talking to our own doctors and asking them if they offer abortion care, either surgical or medical. The more we openly demand full care, the more we knock down the stigma, and the more accessible and humane health care becomes.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.
Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson.