CANADA – Legislating abortion risks turning a medical procedure into a political one

A recent poll in November 2022 found that a majority of Canadians support access to abortion and want the government to ensure access to these services, but they also support the idea of a law to guarantee and improve access to abortion. But advocates say a law could have the opposite effect, and become a slippery slope toward creating the type of situation occurring in the US. Opening the door to legislation, regardless of how progressive it is, means opening the door to potential restrictions too.

Legally, Canada has one of the strongest systems to protect the right to abortion. Abortion is considered and regulated as an insured health service, which means it falls under the funding mechanism of the Canada Health Act, the law that sets out the nationwide principles of the Canadian healthcare system. Although provinces and territories oversee how their healthcare system is managed, they must operate within the guidelines of the act to receive federal funding. While important accessibility challenges remain, access to abortion is well-protected legally in Canada.

In countries where abortion access is defined through legislation, there are often limitations to services. These can include limiting how long into a pregnancy abortion can occur; who is allowed to determine whether the service is needed (e.g. requiring consent from husbands, parental authority, approval by doctors or courts); and on what grounds services are available. These restrictions can cause delays or make it impossible to get an abortion. They also overlook the fundamental purpose of the provision of abortion services: health care and the right to sexual and reproductive autonomy. Legislating abortion risks turning a medical procedure into a political one.

Some 64 Canadian women’s rights and health organizations and dozens of academic and legal experts across Canada publicly endorsed the position in 2022 that no new abortion law is needed in Canada. The statement was drafted by Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights in partnership with the National Association of Women and the Law. They argue that Canada’s approach is unique and based in human rights, by viewing and protecting abortion services as vital healthcare, regulated by medical evidence and human rights principles, not politicians.

Instead, they say, Canada needs to focus on improving access. Politicians can still play a role by ensuring abortion is equally accessible to all people in Canada, which is not currently the case. One challenge is that providers don’t exist in every community, meaning that travel, wait times and the cost of getting to appointments can make service out of reach. Add to this the increasing amount of misinformation online about abortion, which creates increased stigma and confusion for people who are attempting to access services and adds further possible delays to a timely service.

In addition, they say, the Sexual and Reproductive Health Fund, which will expire in 2024 and supports costs associated with improved access, should be made permanent by the federal government. They should also deliver on their election promise for Health Canada to create and market an online portal to battle disinformation on sexual health. Canada has done extremely well in protecting the legal right to abortion. What is needed is more action to increase access to this healthcare, not a new law.

SOURCES: Feminist Organizations Support No New Abortion Law in Canada, by Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights in partnership with the National Association of Women and the Law, 10 August 2022 ; Toronto Star, by Kelly Bowden, Tiffany Butler, 2 January 2023