Canadians should pay attention
On September 1, 2021, the state of Texas passed the most regressive abortion law in North America. Bill SB 8, misleadingly called “the Texas Heartbeat Act,” because it bans abortions after six weeks, when the clump of cells that will become cardiac cells in a fertilized embryo begin to transmit electrical signals that can be identified via transvaginal ultrasound, was first signed off on by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who cannot get pregnant, in May of this year. On September 1, the U.S. Supreme Court, which lost its most ferocious defender of White people’s reproductive rights with the death of Ruth Bader-Ginsberg in October of last year, voted 5-4 not to block the implementation of the law. On September 9, the federal justice department filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the law was “in open defiance of the Constitution.” The federal justice department is headed by US Attorney General Merrick Garland, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2016. Garland’s place on the bench was given instead to Brett Kavanaugh, who has been credibly accused of sexual assault and who voted against blocking the Texas abortion ban.
The law is brutal in both its outcomes and its application. Most people don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks. Six weeks gestation is only two weeks after a person misses their period, and for people who have an irregular cycle, who are young and not used to tracking their cycle, who have continued having their period despite being pregnant, or who are just too busy living their lives to think about their period when they’re not having it, expecting someone to identify they’re pregnant, make a decision on what to do, and scrape together the money and schedule the time off work and the transportation to get to the clinic within two weeks is absurd (Texas is the second-largest state by both area and population, but it currently has fewer than 20 clinics where people can access abortion. A Guttmacher Institute report found that the average Texan would have to travel 248 miles to access abortion care).
The law is also uniquely brutal in that the state will not be enforcing the law. Instead, private citizens can sue anyone they suspect of violating the law, from pregnant people themselves to abortion providers to Uber drivers who transport someone to an abortion clinic. This means that a man can rape someone, get them pregnant, and then sue them if they seek out an abortion. Like all abortion laws, it will primarily impact poor people, racialized people, youth, and people with disabilities. Wealthy white women have always been able to access abortions and they always will be.
Some commentators see the ban as the death knell for Roe vs Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that ruled that pregnant people have the right to access abortion without “excessive” interference from the state. This may be true in so-called “red states,” where decades of gerrymandering and voter suppression have facilitated the dominance of the anti-choice Republican Party, despite the fact that a majority of Americans support the right to choose. Multiple red states in the American South and Midwest have passed bills that restrict the rights of pregnant people in some way, and it’s not misguided to view SB 8 and an upcoming Supreme Court hearing over a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks as harbingers of more restrictions to come. However, states like Oregon and Vermont, which place no restrictions on abortion, are unlikely to change their approach, regardless of what other states do, or if Roe is overturned.
Abortion is frequently a flashpoint in America, a country that has long struggled – and frequently failed – to distance itself, and especially its government and its courts, from its theocratic colonial roots. There is no one-to-one comparison between the US and Canada. However, Canadians who support reproductive justice should be aware that Canada’s abortion law – the Supreme Court decision that arose out of R. vs Morgentaler in 1988 – has made it so that, while anyone in Canada theoretically has the right to access an abortion at any time during their pregnancy, the Canadian healthcare system puts healthcare in the hands of the provinces, where access becomes a patchwork that leaves many people carrying out unwanted or unviable pregnancies, despite the fact that they are legally entitled to an abortion.
Bills like SB 8 make the news because they are direct attacks on the values of the majority of people, who believe that everyone has the right to autonomy over their own body. Unfortunately, the less dramatic but just as devastating challenges that Canadians face in accessing abortions often fly under the radar, even as anti-choice groups are campaigning to restrict access further. What has happened in Texas won’t happen here – but it should prompt everyone to take a hard look at what is happening here and figure out how we can change it.