Before 1969 all abortions in Canada were considered a criminal offence. If a doctor or anyone else was caught helping a woman terminate her pregnancy they could face life in prison; the woman, if found guilty, could face up to two years in jail. Before January 28, 1988 you needed approval from a Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC) to induce an abortion. Comprised of three medical practitioners in an accredited hospital, the TAC determined that a woman may only receive an abortion at said hospital if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman’s life or health. Joyce Arthur, founder of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), found herself before such a committee at Vancouver General Hospital.
In late 1987, Arthur accidentally got pregnant and knew, as she told me over the phone, she wanted an abortion right away. At Vancouver General Hospital it was “pretty easy” to get approved because they “basically rubber stamped all the applications.” However it was not the same, she learned later, across Canada. Many women who appeared before the committee were often refused. Still, she was shocked it was a decision that needed to be approved at all.
She had an abortion in February 1988—a year that proved to be consequential for Arthur and women across Canada. A few weeks prior, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of abortion in R. v. Morgentaler and found that Canada’s abortion law violated Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it “infringed upon a woman’s right to ‘life, liberty and security of person.’” Which included, as Chief Justice Brian Dickson elaborated on, forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term “unless she meets a certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations.”
Though Arthur was raised in a Christian fundamentalist home surrounded by people who were anti-choice, she has always been a feminist and has always believed women should have autonomy over their bodies. She first became involved in activism in the mid-80s fighting against teaching creationism in public schools and segued her efforts toward the pro-choice movement after she a chance encounter with the B.C. Coalition for Abortion Clinics.
A few months after her abortion, during the summer, Arthur saw the coalition on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery and signed up to volunteer. By the late 90s and early 2000s she was leading the group and changed the organization’s name to Pro-Choice Action Network.
In 2004 the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) disbanded because, as Arthur recalled, “having gotten rid of abortion law in Canada, they thought there was no need for a national political group anymore. I disagreed.” In 2005, Arthur formed ARCC, the only “nation-wide political pro-choice group,” to make sure the efforts to ensure “abortion rights and access for women and transgender people capable of pregnancy continues.”
Canada may be one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have restrictions concerning abortions but not everyone in Canada has the same access. Though Canada is not in the same boat as the United States, what has happened there has reinforced the importance to understand the issues that still plague abortion rights here.
I spoke with Arthur to find out more about abortion care in Canada, how ARCC and activism have “kept our rights safe,” how the largely online organization will continue their efforts, and how we can make a difference.
What separates ARCC from other pro-choice groups?
A lot of our work, compared to other pro-choice groups, focuses on countering anti-choice misinformation and their initiatives. What we’ve done from the beginning is fight against the anti-choice bills and motions in Parliament and anything those groups do that promotes misinformation or can undermine access in some way. Last year, the Liberal government put in their platform funding initiatives to help counter the stigma, reduce the effect of anti-choice misinformation, and to no longer give charitable tax status to anti-choice groups. That’s important because we’re giving anti-choice groups legitimacy and credibility and fundraising power through charitable tax status. We’ve been trying to pressure them on that. Abortion is now considered to be a fundamental right protected by the Morgentaler decision and other court decisions. It’s promoted and supported by the Government of Canada, yet we have charities that exist to oppose and fight against this right, it doesn’t make any sense. They no longer serve any public benefit and should have their charitable status revoked. They’re undermining the government’s work. If they have less influence, power, and money, it will help reduce abortion stigma over time.
Because the right to an abortion is not written into law in Canada, there are discussions happening about whether or not that should change. What do you think needs to happen for abortion access to remain secure?
Abortion is a healthcare procedure so it shouldn’t need its own law, it should be governed like any other health care procedure. A law, no matter how well intentioned it is, can easily become a target. So when a bill comes forward and it goes through debates and consultations and amendments, by the time you get through it there could be a bunch of restrictions tacked onto it. And even if it makes it through without any restrictions, it can become a target for more amendments later. Whatever sort of government comes into power they can repeal the law or change it or people could challenge the law in court. They could end up in the Supreme Court and why do we want them deciding again? There’s just so much risk involved. My position has always been that we don’t want any kind of law in Canada, even minor restrictions of any kind, because it gives the anti-choice movement something to build on. If they have a law, suddenly they have something. They have a base, they have a framework that they can attack and go after in various ways. That’s what we don’t want.
How can access to abortion improve?
Abortion is still stigmatized and considered controversial, making it harder to improve access. Governments don’t want to touch it or providers may be afraid of violence or harassment. We issued a paper recently about how we do not need to put abortion rights into law we just need to use the existing tools that we have. Including a better enforcement of the Canada Health Act, more funding, and also a long term project reducing abortion stigma.
Exactly. We want everyone to be able to decide for themselves. There are many different ways that you and your organization have advocated for rights and access. Do you find that there is a certain form of protest that is the most effective way to educate people or to get the message across?
We take a wide range of approaches and try to encourage everything because everything can help in its own way and people might have different methods [of advocating] like art or writing novels. We do a lot of communications work with the public especially with campaigns: sign a petition, write a letter to your MP, or just speak up about abortion. Counter the myths. Tell your abortion story to other people; don’t stay silent. That sticking up part is about helping to reduce the stigma and normalizing abortion as a part of reproductive health care. So it’s not siloed and people don’t feel silenced.
But there’s still a place for physical events, marches and demonstrations—we attended one this summer. After the draft decision of Roe v. Wade leaked we organized one in Vancouver and that was great, about 150 people came out. People have that need to come out and be with others and hold a sign. They want to stand in solidarity and feel like they’re doing something. And we helped encourage people to hold events across Canada in response to overturning Roe v. Wade. We try and encourage people to do whatever they can locally in their regions to form their own little pro-choice group or organize their own event. We’re trying to encourage grassroots activist groups to do as much stuff [as they can] because as a national group we don’t have the capacity; we can’t do everything ourselves. I like to empower activists across the country to stay active and stay informed.
The focus of ARCC is to ensure that everyone can exercise their right to this health service equitably and without barriers but still not everyone can. What can be done to change this?
It’s a challenge because seven provinces have conservative governments. Some of them are openly anti-choice like Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, and New Brunswick. Getting them to try and improve access is like pulling teeth because they won’t. Even though most conservative politicians will say, “We’re not going to legislate, everything’s fine the way it is,” that’s not good enough. We need actual proactive work to improve abortion access and they won’t do it. That’s the problem. And then we turn to the federal government which is liberal and openly pro-choice and supports sexual reproductive health funding. But they have limited influence on the provinces. They should be enforcing the Canada Health Act that’s supposed to provide standardized care and accessibility across Canada, they also give provinces about 20 per cent or so of their health care budgets. But how do you mandate that they spend it to improve abortion care? I don’t know what the solution is. It does rest, at least for now, at the federal government in terms of putting their foot down and actually enforcing the Canada Health Act. They need to make sure that you can access an abortion and other hard to access care no matter where you live in Canada, otherwise what does the Canada Health Act even mean?
I’ve got this petition to the Liberal government to expand access and funding, that has almost 85,000 signatures on change.org. So my plan is to keep the petition going and submit it to the government and keep it at the front of their minds all the time.
It does sound like you are hopeful and that progress is being made in Canada. Do the effects of overturning Roe v. Wade trickle down here?
We’ve been active all these years fighting hard to maintain our current no-law situation. Access and other pro-choice movements have been fighting as well. I was talking about this on a panel a couple of months ago. People are always saying they’re afraid what happens in the U.S. is going to happen here, but it won’t, our rights are safe here. But then someone on the panel pointed out it’s because of all the work that groups like ARCC and others have been doing over the years, it’s the activism that has kept our rights safe. And I thought, oh right, you can’t ever just stop or be apathetic, you always have to be fighting. As long as we’re out there fighting then you’re putting a dent into the efforts of the anti-choice movement. That makes a big difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Header image design by Orly Zebak.
Orly Zebak writes, designs sets and costumes, and makes art in various mediums. Her work seeks to challenge conceptions of female performativity in relation to womanhood, girlhood, and coming of age stories. In her spare time, you can catch Orly gardening—usually in her very comfortable off-brand crocs.
Orly earned her M.A. at the University of Toronto in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies.