BRIEFING NOTES TO THE POSITION STATEMENT ON ABORTION BY L’AUTRE PAROLE1, 2

1. Introduction

1.1 In 1982, in response to a declaration made by Quebec Bishops, condemning the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, members from L’autre Parole called upon some other feminist groups to take a public stand in favour of free reproductive choice and to declare that “Women’s lives are not an abstract principle.” In 1987, we studied the subject once again and came to a position as a collective. At that point, we stressed that our thoughts on the matter were not definitive, being situated in a specific context (in Quebec) and formulated at a specific time (during the 1980s).

1.2 At the beginning of this XXI century, the main elements of our position were due to be reviewed and updated. This undertaking was all the more necessary as, for several years, we had witnessed a worldwide anti-choice offensive by conservative religious, social and political groups, in which the Vatican and Catholic groups are playing an active part. Their actions have an impact both in Canada and in the House of Commons. In the current context, we, as members of the L'autre Parole collective, believe that it is important to raise our voices as feminists and as Christians. Formulating our position is an ongoing process, situated in a globalized century in which science, ethics and the wonders of the human heart never cease to amaze us.

1.3 Over the past thirty years, our various experiences not only as feminists and Christians but also as progressive and environmentally conscious women have shaped our discussions. We are now more mindful of life in all of its forms, robust or fragile, and always existing as an interdependent entity.

1.4 While our position has certainly evolved, the reality and concerns that form its foundation remain: respectively, women’s experiences and the imperative need to protect their health while recognizing their autonomy and ability to make ethical choices.

1.5 We therefore refuse to adopt the labels used in the current debate, in which those who oppose abortion call themselves “pro-life.” We believe this position might be more accurately called “anti-choice.” We are defending a position “For life and for choice.”

 

2. Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy:

Received Notions and Reality

2.1 Is abortion regarded by women as a means of contraception?

2.1.1 Anti-choice groups claim that because a “high number” of pregnancies are being interrupted, abortion has become a means of contraception like any other — a “trivial” act. These groups believe that women would have abortions without carefully considering the serious nature of their actions. Women are being cast as creatures who lack judgment and the ability to make ethical choices. This prejudice, in addition to being insulting, is not grounded in reality.

2.1.2 Since 2004, the Institut de la statistique du Québec has recorded a constant decrease in voluntary interruptions of pregnancy in Quebec, reporting 26,248 in 2011, a rate of 17.3 per thousand women of childbearing age (between the ages of 14 and 44). Therefore, rates in Quebec are far from being among the highest in the world, only ranking as average when compared to industrialized western countries.

2.1.3 According to many analysts, in order to be considered a means of contraception, the number of voluntary interruptions of pregnancy must be higher than the number of births, which is not the case.3

2.1.4 Late-term voluntary interruptions of pregnancy, provided after the 23rd week represent fewer than 1% of all abortions in Canada. In Quebec, the number of interventions varies between 25 and 100 per year and many take place in tragic circumstances. For example, women refuse to continue a pregnancy when a foetus is severely deformed, compromising its viability; when diagnosed with cancer that will require toxic chemotherapy treatments; when they are homeless or addicted to drugs or alcohol; when, despite having an IUD, they become pregnant.

2.1.5 History has taught us that women who are determined to interrupt a pregnancy have never hesitated to endanger their own lives or health to do so. According to 1966 statistics, gathered by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, secret backstreet abortions were the main cause of hospitalization among women in Canada between 1960 and 1966, leading to the deaths of 150 women.

2.1.6 It is worth recalling that, most of the time, women bear sole responsibility for contraception and that, contrary to popular belief, contraceptive methods are not 100 % effective, nor are they 100 % safe or harmless so far as women’s health is concerned. Abortion rates can be much more clearly attributed to an absence of sex education at school, a lack of free contraception and the little research being done in this field, than they can to women’s “frivolous” nature.

2.1.7 Although women do not always experience a voluntary interruption of pregnancy as a tragedy, it should be noted that not all unplanned pregnancies automatically lead to abortions. Modern women have many ways of leading fulfilling lives and adjusting to unforeseen and unplanned events.

2.1.8 Women are more likely than not to show great maturity and care with regard to their fertility. However, even though it is abundantly obvious that men and women are both equally responsible for an unwanted pregnancy, too often it is women who bear sole responsibility for their condition.

2.2 Sex Selection and Eugenics

2.2.1 In their arguments, anti-choice groups have cited late-term abortions, performed for eugenic reasons (or not), and more recently, the possible practice of sex-selective abortions, to indirectly reopen the debate over the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. Their objective is to make abortion a crime once again. Obviously, we would not deny that these practices may exist; nor would we minimize the gravity of these practices.

2.2.2 We believe that criminalizing the voluntary interruption of pregnancy does not adequately address these situations and that sex selection would be more effectively prevented by providing more sex education, fighting poverty and, especially, by empowering women throughout the world. There are currently no studies or conclusive data in Canada or Quebec that allow us to measure the magnitude of sex selection practices. The Minister of Health and Social Services is responsible for conducting the relevant investigations in this field and, if necessary, would also be responsible for intervening to ensure the soundness of medical practices and for providing education to promote gender equality.

2.2.3 Concerning eugenics, a society that is open to difference and individual vulnerability is one that can fully accommodate the needs of children living with disabilities.

 

3. Contexts

3.1 The Offensive Launched by Right-wing, Conservative, Religious Anti-Choice Groups

3.1.1 We cannot ignore the fact that the issue of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy is being raised today in a specific ideological context: one in which right-wing influences have moved into all spheres of society, be they political or religious. In contrast, the feminist

movement could only have won its long, hard-fought victory for the right to reproductive choice in an open society that was conducive to equality between the sexes.

3.1.2 We have asked ourselves how it can be that right-wing, political, religious groups currently support war, the free circulation of firearms, and capital punishment while at the same time defending the absolute inviolability of the zygote, foetus, and embryo. In our view, ideologically driven right-wing groups and anti-choice discourse are setting up formidable polar opposites: good vs. evil; a “justified” war on abortion vs. the “unjustified” voluntary interruptions of pregnancy; a zygote, foetus or embryo’s pure life vs. impure life, tainted by the complexity of everyday living.

3.1.3 These notions are based on a hierarchy that gives those at the top the power to make decisions about both their own lives and those of their subordinates, who have no choice but to suffer the consequences of these decisions. This hierarchy draws its strength from the appropriation of women by men, the appropriation of those colonized by their colonizers, of the poor by the wealthy, and of laypeople by clerics in situations of power. These clerics have claimed the exclusive right to pronounce on the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, purporting to possess the only valid Truth in this matter.

3.1.4 Under John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, men in the Roman Curia bestowed upon themselves the authority to lead women, demoting them to the rank of assistants, forbidden to ever speak for themselves on issues that directly concerned them. Moreover, presenting Mary time and again as a model woman, virgin and mother — perfect, pure and immaculate — is a clear manifestation of this polarization in role models. This polarization has made it impossible for women to be regarded as real, flesh-and-blood women, with their own emotions, sexuality, ideas and conscience.

3.1.5 For this reason, we consider it important to emphasize just how political an issue voluntarily interrupting a pregnancy is. It is an issue of power, the power of men over women in a patriarchal society. The right to continue a pregnancy or not is the only right that is specific to women. It is a right founded on biological difference, namely on women’s ability to bring children into this world. And, from time immemorial, in many cultures, men have sought to control this reproductive ability.

3.2 Contextualizing the Discussion on the Beginning of Life

3.2.1 We have seen how prevalent discussions regarding the beginning of life have been in the current debate. These discussions raise the following questions: How many weeks must pass before the foetus is viable? At what moment in time does a foetus become a person? With regard to the question of weeks, both physicians and medical teams have varying perspectives: What some deem acceptable, others would not.

3.2.2 In our judgement, life is present before, during and after fertilization. The foetus is a human being in the making. That is why this issue is so difficult for us and why we hold it to be exceptionally serious. We do not wish to develop two moral standards, one that applies before 12 or 16 or 20 weeks, and the other after; one that applies to a foetus presenting with an anomaly and the other to a “perfect” foetus.

3.2.3 We believe that life is life.

3.3 Legal Context

3.3.1 We disagree with the anti-choice movement’s assertion that there has been a “legal void” since the historic 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Since the ruling was handed down, abortion is deemed to be a medical act, governed by the health care authorities in each province and is therefore rigorously administered as such.

3.3.2 We believe that it is not necessary to make abortion a matter for our courts to deal with. The countries in which abortion is illegal have the highest numbers of backstreet abortions, resulting in the most devastating outcomes. Fighting poverty and increasing access to sex education will do more to reduce the number of voluntary interruptions of pregnancy than will criminalization.

3.3.3 Indeed, we have observed that both the right to choose to continue a pregnancy and the availability of services to interrupt it contribute to reducing the number of interventions, as these services are often combined with preventive measures, such as sex education and access to contraception. Moreover, such services make it possible for women to have children in the future.

3.3.4 It would be out of the question for us to accept any downgrading of these acquired rights.

3.4 The Real Scandals

3.4.1 We denounce the inconsistency and hypocrisy of anti-choice groups and that of the political, right-wing “authorities” regarding the issue of voluntary interruptions of pregnancy. We are outraged by the scandalized attitude they take with regard to women’s choice.

3.4.2 By the same token, the Vatican’s policy of opposing contraception and sex education while condemning the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, even in the most tragic of cases, is contradictory and irresponsible in our view. Under what definition of life is it acceptable to force a rape victim to give birth to a child?

3.4.3 We deplore the attempts being made to influence pregnant women and even lie to them by claiming that voluntarily interrupting a pregnancy may jeopardize their future fertility or even that it could cause cancer (!). It is abhorrent to show young women photoshopped pictures of foetuses or videos extolling the virtues of motherhood while they are grappling with the very difficult question of whether or not they should interrupt a pregnancy.

3.4.4 It is scandalous to us that there is an active campaign against contraception and that little, if any, research is being undertaken anymore to develop means of contraception that are truly reliable and entirely safe vis-à-vis women’s health.

3.4.5 It is scandalous to us that it is no longer possible to provide sex education that promotes both a healthy sex life and protection against disease and unwanted pregnancies.

3.4.6 It is scandalous to us that society is not proclaiming loud and clear that men (be they adolescents or adults) and women of childbearing age are equally responsible for their fertility and for a possible pregnancy, especially since men are the ones who are fertile on an ongoing basis throughout their lives.

3.4.7 It is scandalous to us that no preventive education is being provided on rape, bullying or on all forms of violence, as these types of behaviour can often lead to pregnancy.

3.4.8 It is scandalous to us that anti-choice groups are so very present when it comes to preventing a woman from interrupting her pregnancy, but altogether absent once her baby is born.

3.4.9 It is scandalous to us that once these children are born, many are so poorly welcomed into our productivist, efficiency-oriented society. It is scandalous that these children, born against all odds, are then subjected in their families to a childhood of impoverished living conditions with so few measures in place to help single-parent families and young parents.

3.4.10 Collectively, as a society, we would have the means to avert the need for voluntary interruptions of pregnancy in many cases. We could spare women the burden of taking on this last-resort decision by providing satisfactory sex education; offering reliable, effective and free contraceptive methods; promoting responsible practices for adolescent and adult men; and fighting family poverty.

 

1 L’autre Parole is a collective of feminist, Christian women that was founded in Quebec in 1976. For more information on the collective (in French only), see www.lautreparole.org  L’autre Parole’s position on abortion was adopted during the collective’s General Assembly on August 18, 2013.

2 Translation from French by Cynthia Kelly.

3 In 2011, the Institut de la statistique du Québec reported 88,618 births.