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Pickle Me This

September 27, 2018

No Choice, by Kate McKenna

I think it’s because it just make sense to take for granted the things that one should take for granted (such as bodily autonomy) that feminist history seems to so often be overwritten. After I had an abortion in 2002, it would take years before I properly understood that I was fortunate to be able to access the procedure in such a straightforward manner. It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to. I had no idea that just ten years previous, in 1992, an abortion clinic around the corner from where I now live had been firebombed. Such recent violent history—in my own neighbourhood—but I hadn’t been paying attention.

And nor did I understand that across Canada, even now, access to abortion was varied and even impossible—particularly for women in rural areas and across the Maritimes. In her book No Choice: The 30-Year Fight for Abortion on Prince Edward Island, Kate McKenna explains the power held by the Catholic Church in PEI and how that power enabled pro-choice activists to stack hospital boards by 1986 so that not a single abortion would be performed there for 30 years afterwards. She also shows how the the fight by pro-choice activists was exhausting, marked by setback and after setback. It didn’t help that in such a small and conservative province, people speaking up for the pro-choice cause could find themselves targeted and alienated. (For a long time I thought the history of progressivism was one of triumph. I read a biography of Jane Jacobs two years ago, and recall someone telling me that the real reason Jacobs stands out is that she’s one of the few fighters who ever managed to win.)

For a long time on Prince Edward Island, nobody won. After activism in the 1980s and 1990s, the pro-choice movement on PEI had mostly faded away. Women who found themselves pregnant would have to travel out of province for an abortion, and for many women (particularly those who were vulnerable and/or low-income) this was impossible. Women who returned home after these abortions were unable to access the aftercare they needed, sometimes with dire consequences. McKenna writes about women she knew pooling funds for “abortion insurance.” But in 2011, things started to change. It was a perfect confluence of events that no one could have planned—the rise of social media that allowed women to share and tell their stories; an activist group McKenna and her friends started to counter an annual “right-to-life” event in Charlottetown; enough time having passed for feminists to have forgotten the future was hopeless, I suppose; data from researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island; women who were willing to be public with their abortion stories; a guerrilla campaign of posters featuring the striking image shown on McKenna’s book cover. By 2016, PEI had a new Premier who was willing to consider an alternative to that “status-quo” that so many other politicians had been so comfortable with—McKenna quotes activist Professor Colleen MacQuarrie as being exasperated by this focus on status-quo, “Like it was a good compromise. Women’s health against…people that feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of abortion.”

On March 30, 2016, the PEI government announced that they would create a reproductive health centre in Summerside, PEI, that would offer abortions, among other services. After thirty years of fighting, the women of PEI had won the right to healthcare that millions of other Canadian women had access to. But the story isn’t over—in feminism, it never is. No doubt, the pro-life forces are still at work in PEI, and Anne Kingston has written about their plans to play a major in the 2018 Federal Election. And so that end, it’s smart to know what Canadian women are going to be up against, and to learn that there is value in fighting, that the battle can be won,

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