Women’s rights can’t exist without right to choose

Posted October 24, 2013

Written by Beth Lyons

(This post originally appeared in the Times and Transcript on October 24th, 2013, and is shared with permission.)

Every day since Sept. 25, a number of individuals have been standing on the sidewalk across from the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre praying to end abortion. They’re slated to remain there until Nov. 3 as part of the annual international faith-based anti-abortion campaign “40 Days for Life.

This campaign began in Texas in 2004 and has since grown to include municipalities throughout the United States, Canada and overseas. The campaign is based on the biblical theme of 40 days as a period of transformation (40 days and nights of rain during The Flood, Moses on the mountain for 40 days, Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days, etc.). For 40 days from September to November, individuals with the campaign organize ‘vigils’ outside of medical facilities that provide (or are thought to provide) abortions. Vigils include prayer, fasting, and community outreach. Participants believe that abortion is murder and are praying to see an end to the medical procedure, full stop, no caveats or exceptions.

While I dislike having to see them camped out at the Dumont, I don’t begrudge them their right to stand there or express their opinions about abortion. After all, things that are rad about Canada include not only the right to abortion, but also freedom of speech. The former is supported by and the latter enshrined in the same constitutional document, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Because I think it’s their right to hold their anti-abortion campaign, I’m not going to spill any ink critiquing it (though I’m sure you can sense that I’m giving it serious side-eye). What I am going to do is lay out why the right to abortion is necessary to women’s full participation in society and to gender equity.

First and foremost, it needs to be understood that abortion is not a standalone issue. Abortion cannot be divided from the larger context of sexual and reproductive health, and sexual and reproductive health cannot be divided from the larger context of the right to self-determination and bodily autonomy. Of course, that right to self-determination and bodily autonomy are pretty integral to women’s security and gender equity. As one Supreme Court Judge wrote in the 1989 ruling that decriminalized abortion, “forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of her security of the person.” (I’ll note here that there are certainly folks who don’t identify as women, such as gender queer individuals and trans men, who can also become pregnant).

You see, on a societal level the ‘question’ of abortion is not about whether or not abortion is murder, but whether or not government and other institutions have the right to compel pregnant persons to carry to term and deliver. And if it was decided that the government and other institutions had that right? Women could not possibly be equal or participate fully in society.

When women don’t have access to legal and safe abortion, they don’t have access to a full range of reproductive health choices; and without access to a full range of reproductive health choices that includes abortion, they have less chance to decide if, when, and how often to have children. The ability to decide whether or not to have children — as well as the ability to delay a first pregnancy and space out subsequent ones — is directly linked to increasing positive health and social outcomes for women (also known as: the stuff that helps progress toward equality).

When women don’t have access to legal and safe abortion, their lives are at risk. When abortion is illegal and not safely accessible, abortion rates don’t go down — the rate of mortality from back alley butcher jobs just goes up. This is because simply putting an end to state-sanctioned abortion only takes away an option for women without changing any of the conditions that make that option necessary. Women dying doesn’t help the cause of gender equity.

Finally, when institutions that hold power, like government, deny women the full gamut of reproductive health choices, they are making it clear that women cannot be trusted to make decisions about, or be in control of, their bodies. When these institutions — which are so often historically and currently male-dominated that they can be read as masculine — take such a stand they are betraying paternalistic and misogynist attitudes.

They are betraying a belief that they — de facto masculine institutions — can be trusted with such important decisions, but women cannot. They are betraying a belief that women are, in fact, fundamentally unequal, that women require an all-knowing patriarch to lord over them to protect them from themselves.

What it comes down to is this: women must have full reproductive rights and choice, or be chattel. Full stop, no caveats or exceptions.

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