Should anti-abortion groups be allowed to register as charities?

People participate in the March For Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2013.
People participate in the March For Life on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 9, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Of the close to 300 branches of anti-abortion groups listed in a new accounting of such organizations in Canada, 77 per cent appear to hold charitable status.

But should they be?

For years, the answer from reproductive rights advocates has been a resounding “No,” but those calls have gained little traction politically among successive governments, either Conservative or Liberal.

Now, the question of whether the government should remove charitable status from anti-abortion groups appears to be rising again. It comes as the government cracks down on the use of the Canada Summer Jobs program by anti-abortion groups that hire youth for campaigns aimed at restricting the right to access abortion services and as reproductive rights advocates question whether the move goes far enough to defend the rights of Canadian women to access abortion services.

READ MORE: Canada Summer Jobs program will no longer fund anti-abortion, anti-gay groups

“No anti-abortion agency should be registered as a charity,” said Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, which compiled the data on the number of anti-abortion groups operating as charities in Canada and is not itself a registered charity.

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“The mission and activities of anti-choice groups are inherently political and biased, which should disqualify them from charitable status. They work to stigmatize abortion, constrain individuals’ access to it, and ultimately to re-criminalize it.

“They seek to subvert the Charter rights of Canadians through deception and misinformation.”

As Global News reported last month, the government now requires groups applying for funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program to click an attestation as part of their online submission that states that the organization’s core mandate respects the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as associated case law on issues like reproductive rights.

WATCH: Trudeau says anti-abortion efforts out of sync with Canadian society

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Trudeau says anti-abortion efforts out of sync with Canadian society

That change came after a series of reports by this reporter that revealed anti-abortion groups had been using the program to obtain thousands of dollars in public funds to advocate against abortion and support the efforts of pregnancy care centres.

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Pro-choice groups say those pregnancy care centres mislead women about the risks involved in abortions and that they refuse to refer clients who decide to seek an abortion to providers of the service.

COMMENTARY: Conservatives want to remind you they’re not pro-choice

One anti-abortion group has since filed a federal lawsuit against the government alleging that the change to the Canada Summer Jobs program breaches their right to freedom of expression.

Like Arthur, a spokesperson for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights also praised the decision to implement the attestation but said at the time there was more that should be done to prevent anti-abortion groups from using federal benefits to try to claw back hard-won reproductive rights.

“Action Canada believes that this is obviously a move in a positive direction. It’s something that abortion rights advocates have been asking for for an extremely long time so it’s gratifying to see the federal government finally take action on it,” said Darrah Teitel. She also called for the government to go further and revoke the charitable status of groups that advocate against abortion or that are anti-gay.

“These organizations often disseminate false and intentionally misleading health information which means people are impacted when they try to seek reproductive and sexual health services.”

The misleading health information in question can range from such groups and pregnancy care centres telling clients that they run the risk of something called Post Abortion Stress or Post Abortion Stress Syndrome.

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Neither have been proven to exist and are not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Psychological Association.

READ MORE: Crisis pregnancy centres mislead women, report says

The Lethbridge Pregnancy Care Centre, which received $8,298 in Canada Summer Jobs grants in 2016 from Conservative status of women critic Rachael Harder to hire two students, is among those that lists the suggested symptoms of Post Abortion Stress on its website as possible repercussions faced by women who get abortions.

The centre, which is affiliated with the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Care Centres, suggests Post Abortion Stress can cause women to have thoughts of suicide, self-harm, abuse alcohol and drugs, and feel psychological “numbing.”

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Laura Lewis, executive director of the Canadian Association of Pregnancy Support Services and a former family physician, said charitable status is what helps many groups operate in small towns across the country and said that the centres do not misrepresent the facts around abortion.

“There is no misrepresentation, there is no manipulation. In fact, women are empowered to make a choice about their unplanned pregnancy, from a position of knowledge and support. Yes, we believe in the value of all life, but we also believe that ultimately it is a woman’s own pregnancy decision to make.”

READ MORE : Is there a Post Abortion Syndrome?

Academic studies in journals like the Harvard Review of Psychiatry and Bioethics have examined the claims about the existence of Post Abortion Stress Syndrome and repeatedly argued it does not exist and that pre-existing mental health conditions are more often to blame.

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“The most consistent predictor of mental disorders after abortion remains preexisting disorders,” said the academics behind the 2009 article in the former.

Also in 2009, academics published another critique of the claim in the journal Bioethics which argued that “the contention that abortion harms women constitutes a new strategy employed by the pro-life movement to supplement arguments about fetal rights.”

“We argue that there is no such thing as post-abortion syndrome and that the psychological harms [theory proponent David C. Reardon] and others claim abortion inflicts on women can usually be ascribed to different causes.”

How many groups are listed as charities?

Registering as a charity allows groups to issue tax receipts to donors and once registered, the group does not have to pay income tax.

They can receive gifts from other registered charities and generally receive “increased credibility in the community,” according to the Canada Revenue Agency.

In order to qualify as a charity, a group must not operate for profit and must fall under one of four categories, acting either for:

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  • The relief of poverty.
  • The advancement of education.
  • The advancement of religion.
  • Or certain other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said is charitable.

READ MORE: Thirty years after Morgentaler ruling, ‘we have a long way to go as a country’

While the latter category includes activities like providing counselling for persons in distress or providing health services, another section of the law governing which organizations can be listed as charities states that groups set up “for purposes that are contrary to public policy” or “for political purposes” are not eligible to be listed as charities.

The question of where exactly anti-abortion groups fall on the spectrum is what makes the issue an ongoing one and continues to prompt pro-choice groups to call for changes to the rules.

Of the 282 anti-abortion groups in the country, 216 are registered as charities: 66 of those are advocacy or political groups, 145 are pregnancy care centres, and five are advocacy groups that also operate such centres, according to public data compiled by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

The data counts each office of a parent group with multiple locations and distinct charity registration numbers as an individual listing under the final tally of 282 anti-abortion groups.

For example, there are 24 regional branches of the anti-abortion group Birthright, each with an individual charity registration number.

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Each of those branches is counted as one of the total 282 anti-abortion groups with charitable status as compiled by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

In comparison, the data indicates there are currently 14 active pro-choice groups in Canada and three of those are listed as charities.

There are also roughly 100 sexual health and reproductive health clinics that offer the full spectrum of advice and care to women, roughly half of which are registered as charities, as well as a further nine hospital-based abortion clinics or women’s centres that are listed as charities.

As well, of the 23 stand-alone abortion clinics in Canada, four are registered as charities.

There are also about 48 clinics in British Columbia operated by Options for Sexual Health, a registered charity, and about 90 additional accredited hospitals that provide abortion, the majority of which are listed as registered charities.

WATCH BELOW: Women films her abortion

One registered charity that opposes abortion spoke to Global News and said that having charitable status is what lets them offer a range of services to help women with continuing their pregnancies.

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“Birthright provides services to women facing unplanned pregnancies to assist them to carry their pregnancies to term. Birthright is not involved in the political or lobbying efforts surrounding abortion,” said a statement from the board of directors of Birthright.

“Donors who support Birthright ensure that we are able to provide ‘on the ground’ support to women and their families, to assist them in mobilizing their resources and provide assistance with accessing community supports, housing, legal and medical needs, as well as tangible assistance such as the provision of maternity clothes and baby clothes.”

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When asked whether she would consider the call for revocation being made by some pro-choice groups, a spokesperson for National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier told Global News she would not be commenting on the matter.

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Karl Lavoie, a spokesperson for the Canada Revenue Agency, said that anyone with concerns about whether a charitable organization is failing to meet its responsibilities is free to file a complaint but noted the agency does not make any investigations known unless it actually revokes, annuls, suspends or penalizes an organization.

“Where a charity furthers a promotion of health purpose through the provision of health information to the public, the information provided must be reasonably unbiased, factual and sufficiently detailed,” he told Global News.

“If the CRA identifies that a charity is not complying with the requirements of the Act, the charity could be subject to a number of compliance actions, up to and including revocation. While the CRA generally approaches compliance through education first, the approach we take depends on the severity of the non-compliance and the facts of each case.”

READ MORE: Navigating Canada’s abortion provider patchwork

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines last week when he said at a town hall that any organization whose explicit purpose calls for removing the right to abortion “is not in line with where we are as a government and, quite frankly, where we are at as a society.”

He also doubled down on his defence of reproductive rights and the decision to implement the attestation for the Canada Summer Jobs program.

“Women have fought for generations for the right to control their own bodies, to be able to choose for themselves what to do with their bodies,” Trudeau said. “When those beliefs lead to actions aimed to restrict a women’s right on what to do with her body, that’s where we draw the line.”

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Employment Minister Patty Hajdu echoed that sentiment in a scrum with reporters on Friday morning from London, Ont., where the federal cabinet is meeting for a retreat.

“That’s a fundamental value of our country,” she said of reproductive rights, and stressed that the changes to the program are about “making sure that the money we disperse on behalf of Canadians is not being used to violate those hard-won rights.”

SOUND OFF: What do you think of the call to revoke charitable status from anti-abortion groups?

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