Accessing Choice in Canada

Pamela Pizarro

An interview with Jessica Shaw of Canadians for Choice reveals that information about sexual and reproductive healthcare is not as easily accessible in Canada as we would like to think.

Recently, pro-choice organization Canadians for Choice released a report on accessible abortion care throughout Canada. The report entitled Reality Check: a close look at accessing abortion services in Canadian hospitals found that only 15.9% of Canadian hospitals provide accessible abortion services. This percentage is down from the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) report on abortion access of 2003, which found that 17.8% of Canadian hospitals had accessible abortion services. An access rate of only 15.9% means that only one in every six hospitals in Canada offers accessible abortion services.

To better understand the situation that young women face in Canada in regards to accessing abortion, I sat down with report author and researcher Jessica Shaw of Canadians for Choice, to talk about her experience conducting research for the report. Jessica called the main phone number of each hospital seeking information on whether or not they provided abortions at the facility. She told those who asked that she was 20 years of age, and that she was 10 weeks pregnant. One of the major obstacles that Jessica faced trying to access abortion care were the numerous myths about abortion leading to a variety of health complications.

PP: What kind of treatment did you encounter?

JS: Many times throughout the course of this study, and in every province; I was hung-up on, laughed at, told that no one would want to talk me, was referred to anti-choice organizations and was told many myths and inaccuracies about what would happen if I terminated my pregnancy. At countless facilities, I was told "we don't talk about ‘that' here." or "try looking in the phonebook under ‘A'" before they hung up on me. People are very judgmental about abortion. At Canadians for Choice, we appreciate the fact that individuals have the right to decide what they believe—be it pro-choice or anti-choice. However, as medical professionals, hospital staff employees must clearly understand and accept the fact that they have no right to deliberately deny information on publicly funded procedures that are covered by the Canada Health Act. If they disagree with abortion, we are not asking that they promote it; we are asking that they refer a caller to someone who is willing to talk about the option. Even in 2007, this is still not happening in Canada.

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PP: How many myths were you told about abortion?

JS: I was told countless myths about abortion from the many bad referrals that I was given by hospital staff employees, and sometimes from the hospitals themselves. I do not have a total tally of the number of myths told, but some of the most horrendous ones were things such as:

  • "If you have an abortion, you may be drawn to abusive men in the future because subconsciously, you feel that you deserve punishment."

  • "It is more common to miscarry than to have a pregnancy develop to term. Why don't you wait another month and see if you miscarry? That way your body has time to do what is natural." (When called back a month later, it would be too late to have an elective abortion. Basically, by giving false information the organization is making women miss the window of opportunity in which an abortion can be performed.)

  • "In many, many cases drug and alcohol addiction is caused by abortions. Women who have had an abortion and men who have had their child aborted, frequently become alcoholics and drug addicts. In fact, most people who have an addiction have been affected by abortion."

  • If you have an abortion and ever wanted to have children again in the future, your cervix would be so weak that it would have to be sewn shut and you would have to be in bed rest the entire nine months of your pregnancy so that the baby would not fall out."

These comments were given to me over the phone by people who honestly believed that they were talking to a pregnant woman considering abortion. Most comments like this were given by anti-choice organizations. Anti-choice organizations can be one of the most dangerous and persuasive barriers that a woman may encounter. Many anti-choice organizations refer to themselves as "crisis pregnancy centers" and often purposely discourage, misinform and coerce women into not exercising their right to an abortion. These scare tactics can be extremely detrimental to a woman who finds herself in the position of facing an unwanted pregnancy. All women deserve the right to unbiased and accurate information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

PP: Do you feel young women can access abortion care services?

JS: No. If this report shows anything, it is that abortion services are becoming increasingly difficult to access. For many women, their local hospital is their main contact for information relating to their healthcare. For a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy, her local hospital is often where she turns for help. Our report shows that it is often incredibly difficult for women to access information about abortion from their local hospitals. In fact, when I called a hospital posing as a pregnant woman in search of information about abortions services, I could expect to hear disbelief, confusion or talk to someone who had no idea where to refer me 3 times out of 4. Obviously, information about sexual and reproductive healthcare is not as easily accessible as we would like to think.

PP: How does encountering anti-choice attitudes affect young women trying to access abortion care services?

JS: Many women who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy are not aware of the legal or medical aspects that surround abortion. When a woman comes into contact with an anti-choice organization or individual who deliberately tries to persuade her into not having an abortion, her right to make her own decision about a medical matter that intimately affects her own life is impaired. Anti-choice messages are everywhere, from bus stop signs that offer "free pregnancy test and crisis pregnancy counselling… to help you make a 'loving' choice" to the outright lies that the anti-choice often spread such as there being a link between abortion and breast cancer. It's hard to find a Canadian who has not heard at least one myth about abortion. Unfortunately, because discussing abortion is still seen as socially taboo, many Canadians are not aware that what they believe to be the truth—is sometimes completely inaccurate.

Accessing safe abortion care for young women in Canada is becoming increasingly difficult. In a country that has a public-health care system and where there are no laws governing abortion, every medical facility should provide this essential medical procedure. Private abortion clinics have been filling the gaps left by decreasing hospital participation, but these clinics are usually in urban centres where abortion care is already easier to access. Comprehensive health care which includes abortion care should be available in every community where there are women. Abortion is not a privilege, it is a right.

For more information on Abortion:

Canadians for Choice:

Canadian Federation for Sexual Health:


Center for Reproductive Rights:

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