GUEST COLUMN - Women’s health and the sum of our choices

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 09:42

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By Kathleen McDonnell

This year marks a double milestone in the struggle for women’s reproductive rights. 2013 is the 25thanniversary of the Supreme Court decision that repealed Canada's abortion law, as well as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. Though serious inequalities of access persist on both sides of the border, abortion is a fact of life in North America and having access to safe abortion is vital to women’s health. The battle is over. Our side won. Apparently, the news never got through to two Conservative MPs who recently called for the RCMP to investigate nearly 500 late-term abortions carried out between 2000 and 2009 as possible murders. In other words, they want the Mounties to track down women who’ve undergone the procedure and subject them to invasive, traumatic questioning, possibly resulting in criminal charges. This is a grossly heavy-handed tactic, and one that’s wildly out of-step with the public mood on the issue.

Then there’s Pattie Mallette, mother of pop idol Justin Bieber. Mallette has spoken publicly about how, as an unwed 18-year-old, she resisted social pressure to have an abortion. Her current project is promoting Crescendo, a new film about Beethoven’s mother that’s being hailed by anti-abortion groups for its “powerful pro-life message.” The not-so-subtle subtext of the film is that abortion would have deprived the world of the genius of a Beethoven (and, by extension, a Justin Bieber). The singer himself has been trying to steer clear of the controversy, but that hasn’t stopped fans from setting up an “I love Justin Bieber’s pro-life views” page on Facebook. As of mid-February the page had fewer than 4,000 “Likes,” which for a star of Bieber’s magnitude is pretty small potatoes. Still, the film’s message, coupled with the singer’s star wattage, could have a powerful effect on the young adolescents who identify themselves as “Beliebers.”

The above examples notwithstanding, there are indications that the anti-abortion movement’s tactics are growing more sophisticated. When Minister for the Status of Women Rona Ambrose voted in support of a private member’s bill calling on the government to clarify the legal personhood of an unborn fetus in the fall of 2012, she claimed it was because of her “concerns about discrimination of girls by sex selection abortion.” Soon after that vote, another conservative backbencher tabled a motion asking that “the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” Slated for debate in March of 2013, the motion is thoroughly framed by the language of women’s rights, and a website promoting it carries the slogan “Protect Girls. Stop Gendercide.” It’s part of a trend identified by authors Paul Saurette and Kelly Gordon in an op-ed in the Toronto Star as a “powerful, but largely unnoticed, trend: the rebranding of the anti-abortion position as a pro-woman, with-it, modern stance.”

Infuriating as it is to see anti-choice proponents cloaking themselves in the language of feminism, the uncomfortable fact is that they’re pointing to what is the Achilles heel of the pro-choice position. A year ago, a number of media reports suggested that abortion for purposes of sex selection was being practised in Canada—in some South and East Asian communities to prevent female births, and more generally as “family balancing” by parents wanting to choose their children’s gender. I wrote an article that was published on the Huffington Post Canada website that raised some questions about these practices, pointing out that made-to-order gender wasn’t exactly the kind of “choice” the founding mothers of the abortion movement had had in mind. The piece elicited a fierce reaction, with many online commenters castigating me for stirring up a “fake controversy” that gave aid and comfort to the anti-abortion movement.  I was taken aback by the response because the article was clearly (to me, at least) written from a pro-choice perspective. It seemed obvious to me that you can abhor the use of abortion for purposes of sex selection while still maintaining the right to choose, in the same way that you can denounce someone else’s views while still supporting the principle of free speech.

Even more problematic was the notion, expressed by many readers, that the choice to have an abortion is a completely private one—as one commenter put it, “it’s absolutely no one else’s business.” But individual choices are not made in a vacuum. Taken together, over time, they have wider social impacts. Sex-selective abortion, for example, has been practised for decades in China and India, with the result that both countries are facing severe gender imbalances in their populations, with all the well-established social problems that arise in societies with too many young males. The idea that an aggregate of choices has effects beyond their individual impact is an idea that we have no problem facing up to in other areas. For instance, these days no one seriously argues that choosing not to recycle or avoid wasteful packaging, to drive to work instead of taking public transit, is “no one else’s business.” As a society, we’ve come to recognize that these private choices, when multiplied, have serious consequences for the environment.

The dilemma gets even thornier when we consider the issue of genetic screening for disability. For decades amniocentesis and other prenatal screening techniques have been used to detect Down syndrome and other conditions. Researchers have now harnessed the ability to sequence an entire fetal genome and we could be on the cusp of a brave new world of choice. The ominous prospect of eliminating disability and creating designer babies echoes the discredited eugenics movement of a century ago. We may be reluctant to talk about these developments and how they fit into the pro-choice perspective. But we have to, because our opponents already are.

Disability rights advocates, who some might expect to oppose abortion, appreciate the complexities of the issue better than anyone. For the most part, disability rights organizations support the right to choose, but insist that pregnant women be given the full range of perspectives on disability, so they can make a truly informed choice. And as with sex selection, larger questions cry out to be addressed. It’s conceivable, for instance, that with widespread genetic screening, Down syndrome could be eradicated in a few generations. What would be the consequences for the human gene pool? What would it do to efforts to achieve a just and caring society? The burden of these weighty questions should in no way be borne by individual women. But as a society we need to consider what kind of messages we are sending, and how welcoming and inclusive we are of people whose abilities don’t match up with some artificial norm.

Of course, we can argue until we’re blue in the face about abstract notions of privacy, individual rights and the legal status of the fetus. But history shows us that, where reproductive rights are concerned, we should never stray too far from women’s day-to-day reality. The most compelling reason not to place legal restrictions on abortion is that the restrictions won’t work. They never have, and they never will. For millennia women have endured extreme pain, risked grave injury and death, rather than continue an unwanted pregnancy. They always find a way, no matter what the law says. Outlawing abortion doesn’t prevent abortions; it only puts women at greater risk.

Our side won. And we’ll never go back.

Kathleen McDonnell is a Toronto-based writer and author of Not an Easy Choice: Re-examining Abortion (originally published in 1984; 2nd edition published by Second Story Press in 2003). Her website is