HEALTH

A profound choice

Uniting against a proposed abortion law

NORA UNDERWOOD November 19 1990
HEALTH

A profound choice

Uniting against a proposed abortion law

NORA UNDERWOOD November 19 1990

A profound choice

HEALTH

Uniting against a proposed abortion law

Across Canada, an unusual phenomenon is taking place. Groups with bitterly opposing views on an emotional and divisive issue are aiming their barbs at the same target: Ottawa’s proposed new abortion law. Bill C-43, which is awaiting Senate approval and could become law by early next year, would make abortions illegal except when carried out by a qualified physician to protect the mother’s health. Pro-

ponents of a woman’s right to choose are fighting the bill because they say that abortion is not an offence and has no place in the Criminal Code. Anti-abortion activists say that they oppose the legislation because it sanctions abortions. Even doctors have attacked it, and at least 275 physicians have declared that, rather than risk criminal charges, they will stop performing abortions altogether if Bill C-43 becomes law. Declared Cynthia Haughn, executive director of Campaign Life Coalition Nova Scotia, an anti-abortion group in Halifax: “Who wants the bill? The pro-choice people don’t want it. The doctors don’t want it. The prolifers don’t want it.”

At the same time, Ontario’s six-week-old New Democratic Party government strongly

opposes the proposed law. On Oct. 24, Premier Bob Rae told reporters that the bill was “a bad law” because it would make abortions considerably more difficult to obtain. Earlier this month, Anne Swarbrick, minister for women’s issues in Rae’s government, and provincial Health Minister Evelyn Gigantes met federal Justice Minister Kim Campbell in Ottawa to try to persuade her to drop the bill. “There’s no room in the Criminal Code for abortion,” Swarbrick told Maclean’s. “The bill must be withdrawn.”

The assault on the bill has marked a new chapter in a debate that has raged since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the existing, 18year-old abortion law in January, 1988. Under that law, abortions were illegal except when committees of doctors at hospitals agreed that an abortion was necessary to protect a pregnant woman’s health. But in some parts of the country, women were unable to obtain abortions because hospitals did not have abortion committees. In striking down the law, the Supreme Court ruled that it violated the constitutional right of women to security of the person and was an inis fringement of women’s I rights. The decision mobilized anti-abortion activists, 5 who demanded that Prime ° Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government enact new legislation.

Ottawa responded with Bill C-43, which the Commons passed by a vote of 140 to 131 in May. Since then, the bill has been stalled in the Senate, where the battle over the controversial Goods and Services Tax has created a legislative backlog. That delay has given both sides a renewed opportunity to sharpen their attacks. Betty Green, president of Vancouver Right to Life, said that the bill is “a law to legalize abortion in this country.” Ann Nacci, administrator of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic in Winnipeg, says that Bill C-43 violates the spirit of the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling because it is a return to restricting a woman’s autonomy. Declared Nacci: “This is a health decision and does not belong in the Criminal Code.”

Other critics say that it would create hazards

for both women and doctors. Under the terms of the bill, both a woman who has an abortion and the doctor who performs it may face a prison sentence of up to two years if there is insufficient evidence that continuation of the pregnancy would have jeopardized the woman’s physical, mental or emotional health. Critics also contend that because the bill does not define the phrase “emotional health,” doctors could be liable to prosecution if they performed abortions using that justification. “Nobody really wants to take the kind of responsibility Bill C43 puts on doctors,” said Janis Tripp, a counsellor at Toronto’s Hassle Free Clinic, a treatment and referral centre for sexually transmitted diseases and family planning. “This puts the entire decision-making power in their hands, and many recognize it’s not their decision to make. So they’re backing off.”

According to the 46,000-member Canadian Medical Association (CMA) in Ottawa, at least 50 doctors across the country have stopped performing the procedure since May. In Ontario, doctors in Brantford and Sault Ste. Marie have abandoned abortions and, in Calgary, four doctors who usually performed them at Peter Lougheed Hospital resigned in June, citing Bill C-43. Hospital officials persuaded the four physicians to stay in their jobs, but the doctors vowed to resign if the bill becomes law.

In Manitoba, Winnipeg gynecologist Dr.

Richard Boroditsky estimates that about half of the 16 to 18 doctors in the province who perform abortions will stop, and women will find it increasingly difficult to obtain the operations. Boroditsky said that, in some cases, a woman could wait for up to six weeks to have an abortion. By that time, it is often too late because many hospitals and doctors will not perform the operation after the 16th week of pregnancy. Women, he said, will become increasingly desperate, and “people are going to die.”

According to Douglas Geekie, communications director of the CMA and a CMA representative at the Senate standing committee on justice hearings, more physicians will stop performing abortions if the law passes, and many others will do the same if a doctor is charged. Geekie said that physicians are not only concerned about the possibility of being convicted and imprisoned for performing illegal abortions. Many also say they are afraid that charges will be laid as the result of complaints by members of anti-abortion groups.

¡2 But few anti-abortion activists suplí port Bill C-43. Halifax’s Haughn calls x tion bill,” adding that it is “incredibly I vague” and “frivolous.” Representa^ fives of her group appeared before a Commons committee in February to voice their concerns about the bill. Haughn adds that she is frustrated by how the Canadian government is handling the contentious issue. “Canadians feel a desperate helplessness,” she said. “We are being silenced and we're left at the will and the power of a handful of people who think they know what’s best.” Like Haughn, James Hughes, national president of Toronto-based Campaign Life, said that Bill C-43 provides no protection for the unborn child. “It stinks,” he said. “The whole thing is really a sham. Unless there is recognition that it's a human being, we’re going nowhere.” But

Haughn and others within the anti-abortion movement say that the fact that some doctors have already stopped performing abortions is a desirable, but unexpected, result of the proposed legislation. Vancouver’s Green said that some doctors were using the bill as a way to stop performing abortions “because many feel compelled to do it and don’t have the guts to stand up and say it’s wrong to kill people.” Other activists are taking a different route in their fight against abortion. Beverly Daw founded the Toronto-based Canadian Rights Coalition last February to help women who have had unhappy experiences with an abortion to sue their doctors for malpractice. “Women, in my opinion, aren’t the criminals,” said Daw. “Doctors are the criminals.” Daw added that she does not think Bill C-43 goes far enough to protect the unborn. But, she said, “the good thing is that doctors stand alone now, and that will definitely work in women’s favor.”

That is precisely what many physicians say worries them. Dr. Diana Ingram, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, told Maclean ’s that abortion is “already a difficult area to work in. Having struggled with the issue of abortion, to be harassed in one more way is sort of seen as the final straw by many physicians.”

But some legal experts maintain that Bill C43 violates the same constitutional principles as the law that the Supreme Court struck down in 1988. Earlier this year, the 725-member, Toronto-based Canadian Criminal Lawyers’ Association mailed a statement to MPs outlining its opposition to the bill. The statement said that Bill C-43 “has the very real potential to lead to the harassment of women, doctors and health-care workers” by anti-abortion activists, and that the “chilling effect” on doctors would limit access to the operation. Ultimately, said the association, the difficulty in obtaining abortions would lead to a violation of the right of women to security of the person guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

So far, Justice Minister Campbell has attempted to reassure doctors by promising that physicians will not be maliciously prosecuted under the new law. But some doctors, including Boroditsky, say that Campbell’s assurances are not convincing. “Her telling us that we don’t have to worry isn’t good enough,” he said. “No doctor wants to go to jail.” Boroditsky, who said that he has not decided what he will do if the bill passes, added that few doctors like performing abortions. Declared Boroditsky: “If you feel this law is going to hurt you, why go through the trauma and embarrassment that could come with a court case? I sure don’t want to be a scapegoat for the government.” With both sides in the debate ranged against Ottawa’s proposed law, and concern mounting among the nation’s doctors, Bill C-43 is clearly not to be the compromise for which the Conservative government had hoped.

NORA UNDERWOOD

SANDRA PORTEOUS

MAUREEN BROSNAHAN

Winnipeg and

ADRIENNE WEBB

in Vancouver