Friday, January 22, 2010

Blog for choice: a matter of trust

What does "Trust Women" mean to me? That's easy in the pro-choice context. A pregnant woman has a better grip on her own circumstances than I do, or a judge, or Stockwell Day, or a priest, or the guy down the block, or even her husband or partner or boyfriend. And I, for one, trust those who actually have the required knowledge when they make decisions. So if a woman chooses to have a child, who am I to say no? And if she chooses not to, who am I to say no?

For anyone who believes that women are full-fledged, thinking human beings, trust is the default position.

We're actually pretty big on trust in Canada, even if it is sorely tested on occasion. And I'd say that if we can trust that woman-hating punk
Jean-Guy Tremblay, who went to the Supreme Court in 1989 to try to prevent his girlfriend from obtaining an abortion, and has been criminally harassing and assaulting women ever since--then trusting women ought to be a slam-dunk.

Seventeen convictions he's had since 1981. Not a "dangerous offender," said the judge. Not a danger to "all women." Just the ones, it seems, who wander into view.

A man who assaults, harasses and forcibly confines women on multiple occasions--and was the "pro-life" poster boy twenty-one years ago for putting his partner through judicial hell--can be trusted to do the right thing. He still has time to turn his life around, said the judge. It's not as though he's ever committed a sexual offence. Narrowly construed, at least.

Yet trust, as it turns out, isn't nearly so simple where women themselves are concerned.

Women have apparently not earned the trust of nearly half of the Canadian public, who think that our health care system should cover abortion only in medical emergencies--or not at all. A medical procedure, in other words, should be denied because...women simply can't be trusted to make the right choice. Which is nearly always, of course, procreation.

So we need the state, argue the anti-statists, to tell women what to do, say the advocates of individualism, and if they won't, shriek the get-the-government-off-our-backs folks, then make them. Or, failing that, at least ensure that abortion is as difficult and expensive to obtain as possible.

We aren't really talking about choice here at all, of course. We're talking about its opposite: compulsory pregnancy. If you want the other, then here are some hoops and hurdles for you. Jump! Jump! And if you make it, here's the bill.

Abortion is legal in Canada--there has been no law against it since the Supreme Court struck down the last one in 1988. But that doesn't mean that all Canadian women have reasonable access to it. As reported by the feminist website, some of our provinces are in direct violation of the Canada Health Act (which is meant to guarantee consistency of medical services across the country):

  • New Brunswick will only cover the cost of an abortion if a woman has received approval from two doctors and if the procedure is performed in a hospital (but not in a clinic); procedures by family physicians are not covered. [The battle continues --ed.]
  • There is no access to abortion in Prince Edward Island, no funded clinics in Manitoba, and no clinics at all in Saskatchewan.

  • Similarly, women in northern Canada, which is made up mainly of Aboriginal communities, must often travel hundreds of kilometers to the nearest clinic. Whether abortion is funded or not, this distance often means women cannot go. Statistically, Aboriginal women experience significantly higher rates of sexual assault and domestic abuse than other populations.

  • Access is limited in areas where procedures are only covered at hospitals, because fewer than one in five hospitals across the country offer abortions, most require a doctor’s referral (which can be difficult to obtain in more conservative areas), and hospitals generally offer little or no counseling. Moreover, many hospitals have long waiting lists – up to six weeks – but will not perform abortions after the first trimester.
There is obviously a systemic problem here. We've been in a stalemate, in fact, ever since Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to bring in a new abortion bill in 1988, draft legislation that met its end with a tied vote in the Senate. Judges, senators...wouldn't it be great if our elected officials did the right thing?

But they're in no hurry. The issue consumes enormous quantities of political fuel, and the outcome is never a certainty. Better to duck and cover, talk about EI reform or the economy, anything, anything at all, while Aboriginal women take those long sad bus rides into the city, and PEI women take the ferry to New Brunswick with a wad of bills in their purse and a story they hope will satisfy two doctors who will sit in judgment over them.

This is 2010, and here we are.

A combination of political inertia and the package of prejudice, fossilized religion and misogyny known as social conservatism remain solidly in the way of full reproductive choice for Canadian women. And trust is part of it--or rather, distrust, that lurking patriarchal paleo-notion that women are "the weaker sex," requiring protection and, more importantly, direction. In an important variation on this theme, the "pro-life" crowd sees women as mere vessels, incubators, soft procreation machines.

As I said at the beginning of this post, trust is, or should be, a given when it comes to a woman's right to make what I suspect is rarely an easy decision. Yet there is still so much troubling and widespread resistance, a blank refusal to concede that women have that right, the fundamental, unquestionable right, to decide their own reproductive futures. And this on-going social and political obstinacy has already caused, and is still causing, and will for the foreseeable future continue to cause, no end of real suffering and humiliation.

Will Canadian women someday be deemed more trustworthy than Jean-Guy Tremblay? Almost certainly. But, unfortunately for too many of them, not this year, or the next--or the one after that.


Shiner said...

What an incredibly civilized discussion on abortion. Very interesting.

Dr.Dawg said...

If it's an issue, it's less of an issue than the humanity, personhood and rights of the woman.

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