ARPA Intern Reports on “Reproductive Rights” Conference



May 16, 2013

Lennart deVisser ( Last week I attended a conference addressing “Reproductive Justice” hosted by the University of Ottawa and in support of “Canadians for Choice.” In her words of welcome, Suzanne Mommersteeg (Executive director, Canadians for Choice) said that women face an increasingly hostile atmosphere when seeking access to reproductive healthcare. She urged the pro-choice movement to fight for reproductive justice because there is a huge disconnect between theory and reality.

The term ‘reproductive justice’ was not clearly defined. What does it mean to have reproductive rights? The terms ‘reproductive justice’ and ‘reproductive healthcare’ obviously refer to human reproduction: producing children. Both sides of the debate would agree that it includes the freedom to choose whom to have a child with and when to have children. Reproductive injustice, therefore, is when one person makes these decisions for another. The point of disagreement however, is what to allow once the reproduction is done, when a new child has formed. To some, once a child (or zygote, blastocyst, embryo and fetus) begins to grow inside the mother, reproductive healthcare should not only be concerned with the health of the mother, but also with the health of the child inside her. However, at this conference ‘reproductive justice’ almost exclusively referred to the “right” of a woman to choose whether to carry the pregnancy to completion or not. Reproductive justice isn’t just about being free to “plan ahead,” but also being free to choose to have an abortion.

The speakers at this conference exposed what they believe to be cases of injustice in Canada’s reproductive healthcare system. Mommersteeg explained that although many people think that women should be treated equally and have equal access to reproductive healthcare, many Canadian women have to deal with a very different reality. Pro-choice activists should improve access for all women, free from discrimination. Several speakers at the conference talked about improving access to abortion for aboriginal women and women of colour. These “invisible” women, alongside those with low-incomes, experience discrimination because they do not get access to abortions as easily as white, middle-class women. They get the “birth control” speech because they are seen as uneducated and unable to make their own decisions. Women, the speakers said, should be free to access healthcare, included unlimited abortions, without being judged or questioned about their motivations.

Sunny Marriner, working with Violence Against Women (VAW) in Ottawa, addressed reproductive coercion. This coercion includes sabotage of birth control (e.g. poking holes in condoms) and forcing the mother to carry the pregnancy to term. Forced termination is also a form of reproductive coercion, but, in Marriner’s opinion, occurs to a much lesser extent. These are all ways in which men control women. VAW is concerned with women who are stuck in abusive relationships. Many of these relationships turn violent during pregnancy. The speaker asked that healthcare providers be educated on noticing when the women they are helping show signs of being in abusive relationships. Their partners could be forcing them to make choices they don’t want to make. Women in these situations no longer have autonomy in making decisions about their reproductive health.

Rachel Johnstone, Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, examined reproductive healthcare in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. She explained how there are no abortion clinics on PEI. This reality forces women to travel to hospitals in other provinces to have the procedure done. For women who do not have a lot of money or their own means of transportation, this limits their accessibility to abortions. Johnstone also stated that in New Brunswick, an abortion must be done before 12 weeks of gestation. She suggested that it is difficult to meet this deadline due to the waiting time to see doctors (3 weeks) and gynecologists (5 weeks). These are examples of limitations on the autonomy of women to make choices about their “reproductive health”.

Vanessa Gruben, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, spoke on issues surrounding egg donations in Canada today. She said that there is no comprehensive study on the effects of egg donations on the donors. This issue needs more attention. One “troubling” problem with the “recruitment phase” of the process is that advertisements for egg donors are put not only in clinics but also in newspapers and on Kijiji. The donors then go through a screening process, and provide consent to the harvesting of their eggs. However, the most worrisome part of the process is the “treatment phase.” During this phase, the ovaries are artificially stimulated to produce eggs. Although the recommended number being 6-12 at a time, the actual range of eggs harvested in Canada is 6-60. (A woman naturally produces one egg per menstrual cycle during the length of her fertile years.) There is an alarming amount of over-stimulation that can lead to hospitalization due to Ovary Hyper Stimulated Syndrome. It has even led to deaths in some cases. Professor Gruben argued that the whole process needs to be improved, but placing a limit on the number of eggs produced is absolutely necessary.

Kerri Froc, a PH.D. candidate from Queen’s University, spoke about recent attempts by Members of Parliament Stephen Woodworth and Mark Warawa to reopen the abortion debate. She argued that these attempts ignore and “skirt around Morgentaler.” The reference is to the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada case, R. v. Morgentaler, in which the Supreme Court threw out Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional. In Ms. Froc’s view, these men are insincere in their concern for women and preborn baby girls; they are not pushing to prohibit gender-selective abortion because they actually care for girls. Ms. Froc argued that gender-selective abortion rarely occurs, only making up a third of a percent of all abortions in Canada. A third of a percent of 100,000 annual abortions is still a significant number if you believe pre-born children are human beings, but this was enough for Ms. Froc to prove that the motion made by Mr. Warawa was insincere and simply another attempt to punish women. These men and pro-life groups are “charlatans,” hiding behind gender-selective abortion in order to promote their real agenda.

Overall, the conference was characterized by discussing how access to reproductive healthcare should be improved in Canada. All women should have equal access and opportunity to choose to terminate their pregnancy, regardless of age, race, or class. However, this use of the concept of “reproductive healthcare” is misleading to say the least. The speakers talked about access to “reproductive healthcare” when really talking about access to abortion. They were concerned about the health of the mother (which is obviously good), but completely overlooked the health of the preborn child. None of the speakers even talked about the idea that preborn babies could possibly be human beings before being born. Real reproductive healthcare must also consider the life of the reproduced: the preborn child. Carrying a child is a great responsibility, a part of the miraculous phenomenon of reproduction. It is a great responsibility because there is a complete and unique living human being inside the womb whose health also needs to be looked after. True reproductive justice cannot exist unless society treats mothers and their babies as equal human beings, both deserving of the full attention and benefit of our healthcare system.


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