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 recent updates in Canada regarding reproductive rights.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What are the current risks to reproductive rights in Canadian society at the moment? Primarily, I presume legal and social attitudes are the main ‘thumbs’ to keep tabs on the pulse of the cultural moment.
Joyce Arthur: The legal right to abortion is safe in Canada, at least for now. Even a future Conservative government would be unlikely to challenge that. But we see from the example of the U.S. and other increasingly autocratic countries around the world, that we can never take our rights for granted. Right-wing forces are ever-present and determined, and they don’t care about truth, evidence, rule of law, or human rights. Once those values are jettisoned, democracy is lost and we could easily find ourselves in the Handmaid’s Tale. Let’s hope that the global lurch to authoritarianism can be contained before it gets worse!
In our current reality, the main reproductive justice issues in Canada we still need to work on are improving access to abortion and sexual healthcare, especially for marginalized and rural populations, and destigmatizing abortion and reducing misinformation. Access is generally more difficult in smaller and more conservative provinces. New Brunswick is still in violation of the Canada Health Act by enforcing a regulation that denies funding for surgical abortions at Clinic 554. And the anti-choice movement is very active at reinforcing stigma and spreading false propaganda.
Jacobsen: What have been setbacks to reproductive rights activism?
Arthur: I think reproductive rights activism has been very strong in Canada, with no setbacks. Since 1988, it’s mostly been a string of victories – legal, social, political. The reproductive justice movement in Canada is vibrant, diverse, and determined. They have stood up strongly against past threats to reproductive rights, pretty much defeated them all, and I’m confident that will continue. A recent example happened in June 2021 – it was discovered that the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine was sending medical students to a local anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centre” for practicums. Public outrage, grassroots activism, and pressure from the Gender Engagement Medical group at USask resulted in the College of Medicine ending their association with the CPC.
That’s not to say things are perfect or the anti-choice movement never wins, despite our advocacy. For example, I used to be able to say that the anti-choice movement has never won a court case in Canada in over 30 years, but that’s no longer the case. They recently prevailed in two cases in Alberta – a 2020 case allowing anti-choice events on University of Alberta campuses, and a 2021 case allowing inaccurate anti-choice advertising on buses in Lethbridge. But other similar bus advertising cases are pending (in Guelph and Hamilton) and we hope to prevail.
Jacobsen: Politician Sam Oosterhoff is an interesting case. What have been the ‘highlights’ of the political career for the young man, regarding reproductive rights, so far?
Arthur: On a personal note, Sam Oosterhoff was raised in the same fundamentalist church as me (Canadian Reformed). While I left the church and became an atheist, he became more radicalized. Or maybe he’s just an example of a young privileged white man who’s never had to think about the realities of life for women and gender minorities.
I invite readers to check out my March 2021 article at Rabble.ca, which goes into detail on all the lowlights (not highlights!) of Oosterhoff’s career against human rights and women’s rights. As I wrote in the piece, he’s an example of how open misogyny is still acceptable in the Ontario Conservative party. In 2019, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath reacted to Oosterhoff by saying: “We are horrified that Doug Ford continues to refuse to denounce his MPP’s dangerous, anti-choice and anti-women position.”
Jacobsen: Which politicians, without regard for party label, have made the greatest impression upon you? Those individuals who simply agree with and act out a political trail of equal rights.
Arthur: They have almost all been NDP politicians. Some Liberal politicians do the talk, but not the walk – or maybe just baby steps until being stopped at the next election call. Some past and current NDP politicians I respect and have worked with – people who really care about advancing human rights and equality – include Svend Robinson, Libby Davies, Lyndsay Mathyssen, Don Davies, and Niki Ashton. On the Liberal side, I admire Chrystia Freeland and would love to meet her someday. Even Justin despite his flaws! At least he speaks up for reproductive rights, which other leaders rarely do.
Jacobsen: What other social figures have been creating havoc for the women’s rights landscape?
Arthur: There’s many anti-choice groups and individuals out there, but three groups come to mind that are trying quite hard to attack and undermine human rights – the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), the Association for Reformed Political Action Canada (ARPA), and Right Now.
The CCBR inflicts much harm and upset onto communities via their display and distribution of graphic images of aborted fetuses. ARPA Canada tries to influence government policy and law with Christian and Biblical values. Their legal work is mostly targeted at protecting right-wing interpretations of freedom of expression and religion. RightNow works to get anti-choice politicians elected with the hope they will pass laws against abortion. They’ve been successful at getting several politicians elected, including Erin O’Toole as Conservative Party leader.
Notably, Erin O’Toole claims to be pro-choice, but Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada has listed him as anti-choice since 2016 because he voted in favour of an anti-choice bill. During the Sept 2021 election campaign, I wrote about how O’Toole is still not pro-choice.
Another politician to highlight is Leslyn Lewis, who narrowly lost the federal Conservative Party leadership contest in 2020 despite her extremist anti-choice views. But she won a seat in the 2021 election as MP for Haldimand–Norfolk in Ontario. Her latest campaign is to stop the government from revoking the charitable status of anti-choice groups, even though the Liberal promise was only to decline new applications from anti-choice groups, not revoke existing ones. A few other anti-choice hardliners in the Conservative Party include Cathay Wagantall who has introduced two anti-choice private member bills since 2016, as well as Garnett Genuis, Rachael Harder, Cheryl Gallant, and Arnold Viersen.
Jacobsen: What have been the major inroads for equal reproductive rights in the last couple of years in Canada?
Arthur: The pandemic has brought challenges but also opportunities. The biggest has been a major switch to telemedicine abortion. Most people in Canada can now have a phone call or video call with a provider to get a prescription for abortion pills, which they can then fill at their local pharmacy for free. That has been a real game changer. Telemedicine care must continue to expand because Canada is a huge country and people in rural areas and the North have major barriers in accessing care otherwise. Of course, the pandemic has created many hardships too, primarily difficulties with travelling, including to the U.S. for later abortions.
You asked about the last couple of years, but ARCC produced lists of “Pro-choice Victories” that occurred in 2018 and 2019. We paused because of the pandemic but hope to publish another list for 2022!
Jacobsen: How did the 2016-2021 period in the United States change the discourse for Canadian reproductive rights law?
Arthur: It certainly created fear, in terms of what might happen in Canada. When Trump was first elected in 2016, ARCC’s website crashed because so many Americans were worried about abortion access and if they could come to Canada.
But the issue became especially relevant when Alabama passed its 6-week ban in May 2019 (that law was blocked and is still not in force) and when Texas started enforcing a similar ban in September 2021 – with the added feature of outsourcing enforcement to bounty hunters. In both cases, the global media coverage resulted in a huge public outcry with protests, including in Canada, and much alarm over whether our rights were at risk in Canada too. I believe they are not because the political dynamics and systems in the U.S. and Canada are so different.
For example, the U.S. is demographically much more religious and right-wing than Canada. Another aspect is that provinces don’t have the jurisdiction to pass laws to restrict abortions in the way that many U.S. states have, while our federal parties take a hands-off approach to legislating on abortion. But we must always remain vigilant.
Jacobsen: What options exist now for people who need to access abortion or sexual healthcare? What associations, societies, and organizations can give options to people who happen to scroll across this – for themselves, friends, or colleagues?
Arthur: There’s several good resources people can check:
- ARCC’s list of abortion services and supports
- Action Canada’s list of abortion and sexual health services
- Choice Connect – an online app that connects people to their nearest abortion provider
- Action Canada’s national helpline and fund: 1-888-642-2725
- National Abortion Federation’s helpline and fund: 1-800-772-9100
Jacobsen: Are there any pieces of legislation or facilities coming in 2022 to help even the landscape more?
Arthur: I hope that provincial and municipal laws can be passed to limit the damage caused by the display or distribution of graphic images of aborted fetuses. The cities of Toronto and London are deciding whether to pass bylaws limiting graphic signage in public and prohibiting flyer delivery to homes (respectively). Ontario and BC may pass provincial laws that require graphic flyers to be placed in envelopes with identifying information on the outside, so the resident can choose not to open.
I also hope that the federal Canada Health Act can be strengthened to clarify that abortion care must be fully funded in all cases, regardless of where it’s done – hospitals, private clinics, or doctors offices. This was a Liberal promise in the fall 2021 election campaign. Besides New Brunswick not funding surgical abortions at Clinic 554, Ontario does not fully fund some abortion clinics.
A further Liberal promise was to amend the Income Tax Act to preclude anti-choice groups from becoming charities. Yet another Liberal promise – for which ARCC had been lobbying for years – is a new Health Canada website portal with accurate information on abortion. I’m excited about that, because a central repository of accurate and reliable info on abortion could really help to defuse anti-choice misinformation and reduce the influence of “crisis pregnancy centres”.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Joyce.
Arthur: My pleasure!
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist 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, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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I’m a huge fan of Joyce Arthur. I’d love to see a follow-up with her talking about the strategies in contemporary use to undermine reproductive rights, particularly in Canada, and how we can avoid being suckered by them. For example, quite a bit of our readership were fooled by Cathay Wagantall’s “sex-selective abortion ban” ploy. Less were fooled by her attempt to get Criminal Code protections for “preborn children”, but I imagine some still were. I’d love to see Arthur shine a light on these kinds of tricks, and other strategies in use by the anti-choice crowd.
Thank you Indi, you are so kind! I have written for ARCC on Wagantall’s two previous bills:
But yes it would be interesting to do a piece just to highlight anti-choice strategy, like the co-option of women’s rights language, pretending to support that when they don’t.