Abortion activists on P.E.I. weigh in on Roe v Wade reversal

·5 min read
Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the ruling overturning Roe v Wade was handed down on June 24. (AP - image credit)
Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the ruling overturning Roe v Wade was handed down on June 24. (AP - image credit)

The U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned a landmark abortion rights decision — and the news hit close to home for activists on P.E.I., where the issue of access to abortion was fought for decades.

At the end of June, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade ruling, which provided a legal protection for abortion across the United States — undoing nearly 50 years of legal precedent.

Colleen MacQuarrie, a professor of psychology at UPEI who researched the impact of restricting abortion access on the Island, said the decision didn't come as a surprise.

"It was like one of those horrible things you see coming from years away. But when it actually did come to pass, it was almost like a confirmation that you can never rest easy when your human rights have been violated. Even when you make wins," she said.

"Whatever you have to push against to obtain your human rights, that system didn't go away … So we still have a patriarchy that would benefit from women's lack of bodily autonomy. Unless and until we start to dismantle things like patriarchy and colonialism, there will always be a threat to bodily autonomy of women, precariously vulnerable people."

It took abortion rights activists 30 years to secure access to abortion services on the Island.

The biggest shift in P.E.I.'s abortion politics came in 2016, when the pro-choice group Abortion Access Now announced plans to sue the province. Wade MacLauchlan, who was premier at the time — and has a background in constitutional law — announced within days that his government didn't plan to fight the legal challenge.

By 2016, plans for the Women's Wellness Program & Sexual Health Services centre in Summerside were underway, and it opened at the beginning of January 2017.

'Absolutely hopeful'

But for those on the front lines — on both the anti-abortion and pro-choice sides — the fight didn't stop there.

"The issue has never been off the table for us. Protecting human life and supporting women in their pregnancies and young families as they choose life for themselves and for their children is a preeminent issue in all of our days," said Pat Wiedemer, executive director of the P.E.I. Life Association.

"It's never an issue where we can stop thinking about it … Why are we not more intentional in helping young mothers and young families do both — you know, continue your education, if that is the case, and say yes to the life of the child. Death can never — can never — be an answer to the social injustices of our world today … All those things can be fixed but we cannot bring back life again."

Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC
Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC

But she did say the ruling out of the U.S. has given a renewed sense of optimism to the organization.

"Well yes, I'm absolutely hopeful … Seriously, life wins. Life always wins. I am absolutely convicted that life will take in our case a turn for the better," she said.

"Here in Canada, we are living in a lawless situation right now. We need to have a law that protects humanity. We're in a difficult time but I do not see this as a time for despairing. Quite the opposite. There are so many signs of life."

The ruling, Wiedemer said, serves as proof that Canada's current stance on abortion isn't the end of the story.

"This event in the United States is one of the two fundamental areas where I would say in my lifetime I've experienced the absolute unexpected," she said.

"I lived in Germany for many years … The country was divided and no one would have thought the wall would fall. And yet, the wall fell and freedom was granted — something that no one thought possible was being lived out right in front of us. Here we have the same situation. Fifty years, people thought Roe v Wade would never fall. That this was absolute. And it is not."

'Push back against oppression

MacQuarrie, on the other hand, calls the overturn of Roe v Wade nothing short of "reproductive terrorism" that unfairly punishes the most vulnerable members of the population.

"Despair is the emotion that often will surface when you're faced with such daunting and callous indifference to your humanity and your human rights," she said.

"But wallowing and allowing those feelings to stay there only serves the purpose of the status quo."

Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press
Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press

For MacQuarrie, and those who spent 30 years fighting for abortion access on P.E.I., it's a reminder to never succumb to complacency.

"I've never stopped [fighting]. I've been teaching how to create resistance against oppression for decades and I imagine that as long as I'm breathing I will be part of resistance," she said.

"It's not just something you put down and pick up, it's a way you live your life, in a sense. Because once you know, you can't not know, right? Just because we got better abortion services here didn't mean that there weren't other dire issues of reproductive justice.

"It means that we need to eradicate poverty, we need to eradicate racialization … Here in Canada we have an ongoing genocide against Indigenous people. So there's never an end to what you need to do to, I guess, push back against oppression."

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