I’ve always said that if there were any issue that would compel me to chain myself to the parliamentary gallery, it would be the government taking away my right to have an abortion. That’s what 35 women did in May 1970. Because even though Pierre Trudeau had de-criminalized abortion in 1969, women still had to rely on a jury of (male) doctors to decide if they were worthy or downtrodden enough to be allowed to have the procedure.
It seems ironic to me that my passion for this issue has never abated — despite the fact that as a dyke, accidental pregnancy doesn’t top my list of daily concerns. But I’ll never forget being glued to the television at 10 years old, waiting for the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Chantal Daigle case.
The Daigle decision in 1989 cemented the fact that a father has no legal right to veto a woman’s abortion decision. The issue seemed so basic to me, way before I had even explored my own sexuality. I always knew that there was no way that I was going to let anyone tell me what to do with my body. Period.
Flash forward almost 20 years, and anti-choice rhetoric has become literally like wallpaper. I cringe every morning when I get on the bus and see ads for organizations like Birthright that lure women into their offices using a combination of “compassion” and terror to dissuade them from having abortions. And while I used to laugh at the three lonely protestors who picket the Morgentaler clinic every Sunday, it makes my skin crawl to know that there is a well-organized and well-funded evangelical lobby that is praying for a Harper majority so they can begin to chip away at women’s reproductive rights.
Still, what scares me most is the fact that young pro-choice activists simply don’t have the arguments at their fingertips to counter what the religious right throws at them. Case in point is the recent decision by the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA) to deny funding and space rental to any campus anti-abortion activities. The well-meaning student politicians who brought this motion forward were prompted by a debate organized earlier this fall by Carleton Lifeline that attracted over 200 people. According to CUSA reps, debates like this “compromise the personal safety and threaten the self-esteem of women who may contemplate abortion or have chosen to have an abortion.”
Naturally, groups like the Catholic Civil Rights League were up in arms, arguing that CUSA was restricting freedom of speech by denying official club status to groups like Lifeline. But you know what? I agree with them.
Frankly, I think it’s really exciting that 200 people packed into a room to talk about abortion. Debates like these should be encouraged, even if “the other side” sponsors them.
Imagine if the student activists who worked so hard to censor pro-life clubs had used their energy to articulate better arguments and to organize hundreds of pro-choice activists to stack Lifeline’s events. It’s way easier to shut down a discussion that you don’t agree with than it is to defend political positions that might make some people uncomfortable. And that’s a bad thing.
In fact, it’s that discomfort that feminists and queer activists need to confront head-on. Because it’s not good enough to say that you support gay marriage or abortion rights if you can’t tackle the moral and religious underpinnings of the people who oppose you.
Elizabeth May, the newly minted leader of the Green Party of Canada has been learning that lesson over the last couple of weeks. While May describes herself as pro-choice, she was caught on tape during an all-candidates’ meeting in the recent London by-election saying, “Abortions are legal because they must be to avoid women dying. But nobody in their right mind is for abortions.”
Granted, May was speaking to a room full of nuns when she made that ridiculous comment. And there’s no excuse for that kind of paternalism, especially when it comes from someone who wants to carry the eco-feminist banner all the way to Parliament Hill. But May’s comments are representative of people’s reticence to abandon the syrupy rhetoric about protecting desperate women and actually focus on the real issue at hand — the freedom to choose.
Katha Pollitt summed it up well in a recent interview in Bitch magazine, saying, “The pro-choicers have let the antis set the terms of the debate. We are always on the defensive … we defend abortion by emphasizing the extreme cases — rape, incest, dangerous pregnancies, encephalic fetuses — and we defend the moral agency of women who choose abortion by talking about what a serious, tragic decision it is. And sometimes it’s true. But sometimes abortion is an easy decision.”
Now that’s a brave and difficult argument.