(reprinted as published in The Winnipeg Free Press Opinion: Analysis section, July 25, 2015)
By Leigh Anne Caron
Earlier this week, many Winnipeggers were surprised to discover graphic anti-choice literature in their mailboxes, from the Campaign for Life Coalition and the Canadian Centre for Bio-ethical Reform in a targeted political campaign. The issue of abortion has always been political and polarizing. The power of this postcard is rooted in abortion stigma. It’s time to end the practice of making political gains founded on the shaming of women. It’s time to end abortion stigma and shift from conflict to conversation.
Concerted efforts to create shame and stigma about sexual and reproductive health services, like disseminating misinformation and inaccurate images, does more harm than good. “Almost 90 per cent of abortions take place during the first trimester when the pregnancy bears no resemblance to anything depicted in these images,” states Dawn Fowler, Canadian Director of National Abortion Federation. Scare tactics prevent us from talking openly about our needs and experiences. It discourages us from seeking helpful information and essential health and social services.
As a not-for-profit agency, the Women’s Health Clinic’s role is to work as best we can to protect our clients and provide them with good, ethical care. As feminists, we have a responsibility to uphold and yes, even demand for their rights when called for.
Abortion is a common and legal medical procedure performed by highly trained professionals. In Canada, essential health care services are a right of all citizens. Access to reproductive health services isn’t equal, within provinces and within the country. Access is important. Short of abstinence, no form of birth control works 100% of the time. Menstruating women of all ages, from teens to grandmothers, from every background, may find themselves needing abortion care at some point in her life.
How do we shift from debate to dialogue, from censorship and control to collaborative conversation? Together we commit to move beyond pro-life vs. pro-choice debate to a culture of pro-voice. We make time and space for people who’ve had abortions to tell their stories and speak their truth, safely and respectfully.
What’s the impact when we’re told, in ways both subtle and overt, that we should be ashamed of their bodies and our inability to control them? Ashamed of the choices we make about our bodies and our lives?
We feel that our bodies, and our very lives are not our own. We believe that we’re not capable of knowing what we need or able to make good decisions for ourselves. We become doubtful and unsure. Whether we’re sure or uncertain, all who ask questions about sexual and reproductive health matters deserve factual, evidence-based information every step of the way.
At Women’s Health Clinic, we believe every person has the right to choose what happens to their own body. We believe that all people deserve to be able to access high quality sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion care.
Women have a range of reactions to an abortion experience, just as they do to other procedures. Do most of them regret the decisions? Research tells us that they don’t. Yes, some do, but most report feeling relieved to have the wondering and waiting over with and eager to return to their lives, hopes and plans for the future.
Yes, for some there may be moments of wondering “what if?” just as with any other decision about their lives. But that doesn’t mean a lifetime of regret and that isn’t a reason to be ashamed of the choice. Yes, some do regret their choice. For all who are touched by abortion, it’s important to have safe places to talk about their experiences and get support without judgment or shame.
Sharing our stories means women are safe to able to say “Yes, I had an abortion and I’m ok.” And “Yes, I had an abortion and I need support.” Through storytelling, we find our human connection, we learn to respect and appreciate difference, we move past our fear and need for control and create a culture of compassion and care that benefits all.
How then, do we move forward?
Get informed. People with questions about the accuracy of pictures and information can look to evidence-based, neutral resources. Think critically about information. Knowing who creates or funds the information can reveal any possible biases.
When we listen carefully, quietly, and with compassion, we learn. Now, more than ever, women are giving voice to their real-life sexual and reproductive health experiences.
Women are talking. It’s time to listen.