by Alison Bodine and Janine Solanki, published in Fire This Time, Vol 16, Issue 10-11, November 2022
The Rise and Fall of Roe v. Wade
On January 22, 1973, in the midst of the women’s liberation movement, the U.S. Supreme Court made the historic ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade to grant women the constitutional right to have an abortion. Since that time, Roe v. Wade has become synonymous with the right to abortion. However, it has always been a hard won right that continued to face an uphill battle to uphold, chipped away by restrictive state laws and accessibility. As per reports by Planned Parenthood, while Roe v. Wade was still in place, six U.S. states had legislation making the right to choose an abortion virtually impossible.
Nearly 50 years after the Roe v. Wade ruling, the clock has been turned back on women’s rights in the United States. Girls, trans and non-binary youth today are coming of age with fewer reproductive rights than their mothers and grandmothers had. On Friday, June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, unleashing a wave of abortion bans and more restrictive abortion laws across U.S. states. As of the writing of these words, 14 states have total or near total abortion bans, and about half of the states are expected to try to enact bans or severe restrictions on abortions. Courtrooms across the U.S. states are battlegrounds as pro-choice advocates are fighting in the courts to block bans and restrictions, state by state.
The attack on abortion rights is not only an attack on those choosing abortion, or even on people who are pregnant – it is an attack from the ruling class, from the state, on the rights of all women, trans and non-binary people’s right to bodily autonomy, on the right and authority to chose what is best for one’s health, wellbeing and life direction.
The Women’s Struggle for the Right to Choose and Reproductive Justice in the U.S. and Canada
Although abortion is legalized in Canada and parts of the United States, women, trans and non-binary people continue to face significant barriers in accessing abortions even where legal. The struggle for the right and access to abortion, as well as healthcare services, is compounded for poor and marginalized people, as access to these vital services are often dependent on a person’s location, immigration status and ability to pay. In the U.S. and Canada, trans and non-binary people also face additional obstacles due to transphobia and discrimination in the medical system. Barriers also disproportionately impact poor, Black, Indigenous, immigrant and undocumented people and people of colour.
For instance, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder released a 2022 report that found if abortion is banned throughout the United States, the overall number of maternal deaths would rise by 24%. This number is even worse for Black women, whose deaths would rise by 39%. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), Indigenous women are two to three times more likely to die as a result of their pregnancy than white women.
Indigenous people in the U.S. have never had safe and secure access to abortions due to the Hyde Amendment. This amendment prohibits the Indian Health Service, which provides healthcare services to over 2.6 million Indigenous peoples, from using Federal funds for abortion services. The only exemptions are in the case of rape (if reported within 60 days), incest and if the mother’s life is at risk. The Hyde Amendment also means abortion services are not covered by Medicaid, a government-funded health insurance plan for low-income people, or those unable to work.
In Canada, only one out of every six hospitals has abortion services, according to Options for Sexual Health. People who live in Northern and Indigenous communities have practically no right to choose. “There are significant disparities between rural and urban access to abortion. In some provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, abortion providers are only in urban centers, despite 35–40% of the population living in rural or remote communities,” as reported by Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. Across Canada, the services available, and how much they cost varies. In Nunavut, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon, there is only one abortion provider for the entire province or territory (and the provider on Prince Edward Island only opened in 2016!).
For those seeking an abortion in remote or rural communities, the costs of travel to an urban center, accommodation, time off work and care for children or elderly dependents can be thousands of dollars. Even in urban centers in Ontario, an “administrative fee” is charged at some clinics ranging from $50 – $400. While medical abortion pills have improved access for early term abortions, there are still barriers to access. If seeking the abortion pill while in a province you don’t live in, the out-of-pocket cost is $350 – $450. In Nunavut, because there’s no agreed universal cost coverage for the medical abortion pill, about 15% of the population is not covered by a federal program to cover the cost of the pill.
As in the United States, the regions where women have the least access to abortion services are the same areas where people also have the least access to sex education, contraceptives, or even basic healthcare.
Abortion Rights – the Tip of the Iceberg in the Struggle for Women’s Health and Wellbeing
Besides the right and access to abortion, there are major challenges both in the U.S. and Canada when it comes to access and affordability of health services for reproductive health, contraception (birth control) and pregnancy care.
Ironically made in the name of the “right to life,” attacks on reproductive choice also extend to services essential for a healthy pregnancy in the U.S. For example, in the state of Georgia, where abortion is all but banned, 40% of the counties do not have a gynecologist or a doctor which is fundamental for reproductive health and pregnancy.
Canada, which claims to provide universal health insurance, falls short on coverage and accessibility for many vital healthcare services. Once such shortcoming is access to contraception (birth control). With a patchwork of provincial, private and employer health insurance plans, Canada does not have legislation mandating health plans to cover contraception. As a result, many health plans don’t cover contraceptives at all, or only cover limited methods that can be prescribed for a medical condition besides birth control. In December 2020, over 1000 Ontario healthcare providers signed an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and former Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot, demanding universal, no-cost contraception coverage in Ontario. This letter went unanswered. (This is also true in the US [jb])
Especially when denied the right or access to abortion, affordable childcare is also a crucial question for many, considering in the United States 1 in 6 children live under the poverty line. In over half of states, full-time care for an infant costs more (and in some cases even double) than college tuition, often between a quarter to over half of the income of a typical single parent, according to Child Care Aware of America. In Canada, besides long wait lists to even get childcare, families pay over $10,000 a year for an infant childcare space in 78% of the cities examined in a 2019 study by the CCPA.
Women, trans and non-binary people face an uphill battle on many fronts when it comes to reproductive health and family services, as these few examples show.
Reproductive Choice and Indigenous Women in the Context of Settler Colonialism
The denial of the right to reproductive choice is a fundamental component in the colonization of Indigenous people in the Americas. From first contact, the establishment of capitalism and patriarchy was carried out through the genocide and rape of Indigenous people.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, Indigenous women have continued to be denied the right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice through forced and coerced sterilizations and the lack of access to abortions and reproductive healthcare. Their rights have been further denied through the residential school system and the foster care system, which are part of the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people, and which has destroyed Indigenous families and communities.
The denial of reproductive rights is also closely tied to the safety of Indigenous women, girls, transgender, gender-diverse, and Two-Spirit people who face an epidemic of violence in Canada. As written in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “the forced sterilization of women represents directed state violence against Indigenous women and contributes to the dehumanization and objectification of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people.”
The National Inquiry also highlights another brutal practice of the Canadian state against Indigenous women – birth alerts, which it describes as “racist and discriminatory and are a gross violation of the rights of the child, the mother, and the community.” Birth alerts enable provincial child and family services agencies to remove infants from Indigenous mothers in the moments just following birth.
As of 2022, birth alerts have been ended in all provinces and territories in Canada, except for Quebec. However, Indigenous people continue to be over-represented in the foster care system in Canada. According to the 2021 census data, Statistics Canada reports that 53.8% of all children in foster care are Indigenous. Only 7.7% of children in Canada under 14 years of age are Indigenous.
Lack of reproductive choice and other human rights, coupled with racism and discrimination in the healthcare system in Canada, also have a detrimental impact on the health of Indigenous women. According to a report released by a University of British Columbia – Okanagan professor, Dr. Min Hu, Indigenous women have the worst health outcomes of any other person in Canada. As Dr. Min Hu told the UBC Okanagan News, “The statistics are clear. Indigenous males have better health outcomes than Indigenous females.” … “However, we already know Indigenous people have worse health than many other populations in Canada. And my research finds Indigenous women have the worst of the worst when it comes to health conditions.”
The struggle of Indigenous women for access to abortion, reproductive choice and even basic human rights is undeniably connected to the struggle against colonialism and racism in Canada.
Islamophobia and Women’s Rights
“We need to have self-determination and autonomy over our bodies. What we do with our bodies isn’t a state’s decision. As Muslims, we know that choice is ours alone.”
– Aliza Kazmi, Co-Executive Director of HEART (U.S.-based) organization working to promote sexual health, uproot gendered violence and advance reproductive justice by establishing choice and access for the most impacted Muslims)
The right to abortion is one way the ruling class establishes control over women’s bodies. This control also includes policing what women wear, how women identify and how they express their beliefs. For Muslim women in Canada, this control has gone as far as provincial legislation restricting their right to express their religious or cultural beliefs through wearing the hijab, which is justified through racism and Islamophobia.
Islamophobia is a divisive state policy and has a particular purpose, in which imperialist governments paint the narrative that Muslim people are terrorists and dangerous, are “others” to be feared and suspected. In this way, imperialist ruling classes put Muslims and non-Muslims against each other. Islamophobia is a powerful tool used by the governments of the U.S., Canada and their imperialist allies to justify their wars abroad and the devastating so-called war on terror, itself a war OF terror against Muslim majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Muslim women who chose to cover their hair or face with a hijab, headscarf, niqab or burka are a particular target of Islamophobia, as they are visibly Muslim. In recent years racist laws in some European countries, as well as in Quebec, and Canada, are targeting Muslim women and their choice to wear a head covering.
In Quebec, Bill 21 was enacted in 2019, which bans people working as teachers, lawyers, police officers, and more from wearing religious symbols such as crosses, hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes. This bill also resurrects Bill 62, which was enacted in 2017 and suspended in 2018, which singles out those wearing non-medical face coverings, directly targeting women who wear the niqab.
As outlined by the Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund (LEAF), Bill 62
“denies niqab-wearing women access to employment in the public service, an area of the workforce in which they may be most likely to find employment. They will also be denied state services. Again, this explicitly and directly targets women, who we know experience higher rates of poverty and are, therefore, more likely to utilize public services such as public transportation and social services. Finally, women are particularly impacted by the requirement that an individual must show their face in order to access daycare. Women continue to be the primary caregivers in many families, and therefore have a disproportionate need for childcare services. Feminists have long pointed out the relationship between women’s equality, access to the workforce, and access to childcare.”
Besides other faith groups who fall under discrimination from Bill 21, this draconian law particularly targets Muslim women. So far in Quebec, Muslim women who wear the hijab are the only people who have lost jobs or been denied employment due to Bill 21.
A woman choosing to wear a hijab or any type of head or face covering doesn’t keep her from exercising her rights, moving freely in society, holding a job, or speaking her mind. What does restrict all these things is Islamophobia, discrimination, racism, sexism and state control over women’s bodies – everything that Bill 21 is.
Bill 21, and with it increased Islamophobia, is also a danger to the physical safety of Muslim women. 66% of Muslim women in Quebec reported yes when asked if they have been a victim and/or a witness of a hate incident or a hate crime, as per a study by the Association for Canadian Studies on the impact of Bill 21. The report documented widespread accounts of Muslim women being told to remove their headscarf in public or having it forcibly torn off, being spat on, being subjected to racial slurs, and facing death threats and physical attacks.
Even before Bill 21 and Bill 62, the climate of Islamophobia has been a danger and restriction to Muslim women. In 2015 a Montreal judge didn’t allow Rania El-Alloul, a single mother wearing a hijab, to speak in court. In 2014 a Moroccan woman visiting her son in Montreal was held by police at gunpoint, without being read her rights or told why detained. In the presence of male police officers and onlookers, police removed her abaya (robe worn over clothing) and headscarf and exposed her bare stomach and bra.
Islamophobic attacks, especially against Muslim women, extend across Canada too. In a horrific attack in London, Ontario, on June 6, 2021, a driver intentionally drove into a Muslim family on a sidewalk, killing a mother and grandmother, father and 15-yearold daughter, and sending the 9-year-old son to the hospital. In Calgary, police have seen a 44% jump in reports of hate-motivated incidents in 2021, including an incident where two Muslim teenage girls had racist slurs hurled against them, and one was punched, kicked and had her hijab torn off by the attacker. In Vancouver in the spring of 2020, a 17-year-old boarded a bus and was verbally and physically attacked by another passenger, who punched the teen in the head and pulled off her headscarf.
While Canada likes to portray a vision of tolerance and multiculturalism on the world stage, the truth is that Islamophobia is running rampant. A 2021 report from the National Council of Canadian Muslims found that in the past five years, more Muslims have been killed in targeted hate attacks in Canada than in any other G7 country.
Since it was enacted in 2019, Bill 21 has been fought in the courts by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and Ichrak Nourel Hak, a Muslim woman and teacher in Montreal, who is restricted in pursuing her profession due to Bill 21. Most recently, on November 16, 2022, the final day of hearings against Bill 21 wrapped up at the Court of Appeals of Quebec. It could be several months before the panel of judges decides whether to uphold or strike down all or part of Bill 21. Depending on the results, a further appeal could go to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Muslim women in Quebec are being unjustly discriminated against and denied their livelihoods and access to essential services and public spaces, due to a law that dictates what they can wear. This boils down to women’s right to control their own bodies – a right that extends from what to wear to whether or not to have a child. The ruling class of the U.S. and Canada have no right to police women’s bodies. The struggle against these discriminatory and dangerous laws targeting women are made stronger as all women, trans, non-binary people and allies come together and defend the right to bodily autonomy!
Build an Inclusive Movement for the Right to Choice!
There are many important and continued struggles for full reproductive choice and reproductive justice. The pro-choice movement and women’s rights movement must work to recognize and struggle against the impact that racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and transphobia have on the human and reproductive rights of women, trans and non-binary people. To begin the fight for reproductive justice, the women’s rights and pro-choice movement must also take on demands for trans-inclusive abortion services, an end to the forced sterilizations of Indigenous and immigrant women, and free and universal access to sex education, birth control, and abortion services, as well as free and universal healthcare for all.
At the same time, it must also be said that access to abortion is only one part of the larger struggle for women’s equality and liberation. This struggle is not just for women, but for all of humanity. Firstly, because one of the most important steps to improving the lives of all children, is the empowerment of women. Secondly, the deeply harmful ideology and values that capitalist patriarchy forces on humanity not only debase and demean women and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, but they also debase and demean all people.
Throughout history, the rights of women and 2SLGBTQIA+ people have been won with unity and struggle. After a terrible step backward for women’s rights with the repeal of Roe v. Wade in the United States, it is now clearer than ever before that what is needed is a strong women’s movement. We must build the women’s rights and pro-choice movement as a united front inclusive of Indigenous women, Muslim women and women of all faiths, and all oppressed women to build a strong and effective women’s rights movement.
There have been many victories for women, trans and non-binary people for reproductive rights in the past few years. Through mass mobilization on the streets, the anti-abortion legislation was reversed in Argentina and Ireland. In 2022, women in Poland have led rallies of hundreds of thousands of people against a near-total ban on abortion. The law eventually passed, but women in Poland continue to mobilize.
The right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice are fundamental human rights, and essential to the struggle for all women’s equality and liberation. This is not only a women’s struggle, but a struggle for all humanity, and it will take the unity of all poor, working, and oppressed people to win!
*Featured Image: Protestors outside the Supreme Court after the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Photo by Patty Housman.
Follow Alison on Twitter: @Alisoncolette
Follow Janine on Twitter: @JanineSolanki