A year after Roe fell, where does anti-abortion rhetoric stand in Canada?

Click to play video: 'Roe v. Wade overturned: Abortion rights campaigners protest on 1 year anniversary of historic decision'
Roe v. Wade overturned: Abortion rights campaigners protest on 1 year anniversary of historic decision
WATCH: Exactly one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide, pro-choice advocates took to the streets of Washington, D.C. in protest. The Roe v. Wade ruling guaranteed the constitution right to safe abortions across the U.S. back in 1973 — nearly 50 years ago – Jun 24, 2023

Advocates for safe abortion access and reproductive health are warning that one year after the fall of Roe v. Wade, similar anti-abortion and anti-rights rhetoric is bubbling up in Canada.

And they say more needs to be done to not only educate people on the resources and services out there, but to continue efforts to protect essential health care like abortion, access to birth control and other aspects of sexual and reproductive health.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 ruling that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion, there were concerns among experts Canada may need to act as a “safe haven” for Americans impacted. Some advocates also warned the country could struggle to keep up with any increase in demand for sexual health services and abortion care.

One year later, those same advocates say an influx of Americans crossing the border did not really happen, in part due to abortion access remaining in some U.S. states neighbouring those with bans, as well as the fact many people from low-income households can’t afford to come north.

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“We haven’t seen that influx because there’s a network set up in the U.S. already to help people access American clinics,” Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said.

She added there is the risk of it changing if a national ban were put in place in the U.S., but “hopefully that will never happen.”

Despite that influx not taking shape, the fall of Roe has had a different long-term impact.

According to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, there has been a growing amount of “anti-gender equality” and “anti-choice rhetoric” taking shape. Kelly Bowden, the group’s director of policy and advocacy, said this has been seen in terms of book bans, attacks on drag storytime events, and what she said were attempts to undermine sexual health curriculums.

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Among the examples in Canada, Saskatchewan school boards and advocacy groups had to speak out earlier this month amid ongoing pushback surrounding the topic of gender and sexual diversity being taught in schools. A school board in Manitoba also voted down a ban that could have kept books with LGBTQ2 content from being available in their libraries.

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“The real deep knock-on effect of the reversal of Roe in U.S. is actually around this rising anti-rights narrative and implications on a whole host of other policies that are not related directly to abortion services,” Bowden said in an interview with Global News.

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One example, she said, was a court battle in Texas in which abortion opponents in the state filed suit to revoke approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of mifepristone, one of the key ingredients in the most commonly used version of the abortion pill.

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While the Supreme Court rejected that push, effectively preserving access to the drug, Bowden said the case resulted in misinformation surfacing online about the safety and efficacy of the drug.

Mifepristone is part of a two-drug combination used around the world to safely end a pregnancy without surgery and has a decades-long track record of safe, effective use.

Bowden said one of the best ways to combat misinformation about the safety of the abortion pill is for advocacy groups and governments take steps to combat misinformation and disinformation to ensure people have accurate information about their sexual health.

The federal government can take action by extending the Sexual and Reproductive Health Fund beyond its proposed length. It was set to be spread out over three years starting in 2021-22, Bowden said.

But what she and Arthur say the government must also accomplish is the promised creation of an online portal that would provide accurate, evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as counter misinformation on abortion.

The portal was a promise made by the Liberals in the 2021 federal election campaign.

“Rather than being sent to all these disparate sources or provinces (that) might not have information, and there’s a lot of anti-choice misinformation out there, we don’t want people going there,” Arthur said. “We’d rather have that one site where people can rely on.”

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In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said they were working with sexual and reproductive health organizations to create the portal. They are still working on withdrawing charitable status of “anti-abortion organizations that provide dishonest counselling to pregnant women about their rights and options.”

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Duclos’ office also said the government was also investing $36 million over three years through the 2023 budget to help organizations expand access to reproductive health information and services.

There have been strides made on access to abortion, including making the abortion pill — sold under the brand name Mifegymiso in Canada — more available through measures like the 2019 lifting of the requirements for ultrasounds before a prescription.

Dr. Renée Hall, medical director of The Willow Clinic in B.C., said better access to the abortion pill has improved access for those in rural areas of Canada who used to have to travel to a centre for surgery.

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“We’re making some strides for sure in many places and in many areas and there’s still some work to do with contraceptive access,” she said, adding governments must continue to back proper sexual education.

“Preventing unintended pregnancy isn’t really considered a public health issue. But once you put it into the public health realm within the government, that changes what they’re able to provide with regard to support and access to information for the whole population.”

Hall said as someone who works in clinics that provides abortions and other reproductive services, such as contraceptives, access to information is crucial in preventing stigma and, in turn, issues such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as mental health concerns over what they’ve experienced.

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“That feeling of guilt around getting health care needs to stop or else we’re going to continue to have poor outcomes and more cost to the system and more cost emotionally for people and their families,” Hall told Global News.

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As rhetoric surrounding sexual health education and abortion continues to surface in Canada, Hall suggested it is not only a case of new views spreading north but also people who hold those views feeling “emboldened to speak up more.”

Yet, she says it also gives an opportunity to educate. And while not everyone’s minds can be changed, it still is important to make the effort to combat incorrect information.

Canada has had no law on abortion since the original law restricting it was struck down in a famous Supreme Court of Canada decision, R v. Morgentaler, in 1988.

It means there are no legal restrictions on abortion. But while barriers still remain in terms of equal access, such as for those in rural and remote communities, Arthur says the overturning of Roe v. Wade and actions by lawmakers in the U.S. show the need to be “vigilant.”

“Rights can be taken away,” she said. “We always have to fight for them, even to keep them.”

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