Canadian women, activists watching U.S. abortion rights debate closely

As the right to a legal abortion in the United States may be at risk of being removed, women and activists in Canada are watching the passionate debates south of the border while bracing for what could be related fallout here.

Leaked draft of U.S. Supreme Court decision suggests Roe v. Wade may be overturned

Volunteers with the Viewer Discretion Legislation Coalition stand at London, Ont., street corners and block graphic images displayed by the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform. (Supplied by Katie Dean)

As the right to a legal abortion in the United States may be at risk of being removed, women and activists in Canada are watching the passionate debates south of the border while bracing for what could be related fallout here. 

"It seems that the [U.S.] Supreme Court justices are on the verge of disqualifying the Roe v. Wade decision and that, of course, opens up a Pandora's box of nasty alternatives as far as women wanting to end the pregnancies that they do not want to carry on with," said Dr. Fraser Fellows, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist who performed abortions in London, Ont., throughout his career. 

For more than two years in the 1990s, anti-abortion activists picketed his home in an attempt to try to get him to stop doing the medical procedures. 

"I know that women will become desperate enough, whether it's legal or illegal," said Fellows. 

Although abortion remains one of the most divisive issues in the United States, Canadian opinion polls routinely show more than three-quarters of those surveyed support a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy. 

A decision by the U.S. top court to upend abortion services would have little practical effect on Canadians, but the political ramifications could be enormous, and people here are watching the situation closely. 

Emotional reactions to potential overturning of U.S. abortion law

2 months ago
Duration 5:17
Emotions ran high outside the U.S. Supreme Court, where pro-choice and anti-abortion groups reacted to a leaked draft opinion showing a majority of justices were in favour of overturning the ruling that legalized abortion in the country.

"I'm hoping that our politicians are more in tune with what the average Canadian wishes in the context of provision of abortion services, which is to make sure that we have safe legal abortions for Canadian women," Fellows said. "Certainly the large population to the south of our border can influence political thinking and political ways. So I'm hoping that it doesn't become a political football in Canada like it is in the States."

That's exactly what Anna Marchand, president of the London Area Right to Life, hopes will happen.

"It gives me hope that politicians here will start to think about when life begins, and maybe it will influence how politicians think here," Marchand said of the heated U.S. debate about possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that protects the liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. 

"It's a moral issue," said Marchand. "We don't have a law here in Canada, so it's different. We need to speak to politicians, to get the pro-life vote." 

Abortion access difficult in parts of Canada

London has one of the biggest abortion clinics in Canada, and women in this region are lucky to be able to have ready access, but others have to travel great distances to access abortion, said Robyn Schwarz, an Ontario academic and activist who has researched abortion access in Canada. 

"Abortion access in Canada is really based on where you live and what types of providers are available in your community," she said. 

Fellows' practice has been lifesaving for many women in the city, including Katie Dean.

Dean had a medically necessary abortion and has since been a pro-choice activist and opponent of the graphic fetus brochures some anti-abortion activists deliver to homes and that show on large placards outside the London Health Sciences Centre. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a rally in support of abortion rights on Monday. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. (Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press)

"I have more faith in the Canadian justice system and our own politicians. We're more forward thinking than the United States, overall," Dean said. "I do think we're going to see people coming to Canada for abortions from the states." 

Dean has already been contacted by a woman who has offered a room in her home for any American women wanting to come to London if she can't access abortion services in her own state. 

Schwarz, however, believes Canada has to be cautious about women's rights being eroded. 

"Legally, we're safe. But we tend to think, 'We're good here,' and we're very much not. We're experiencing a health-care access crisis at an unprecedented rate across the country, and the thing with abortion is, you can't wait six months for a procedure." 

"There are people right now who have been forced through this pandemic to cary a pregnancy to term that they did not want, because they could not get access to care in their own communities, and that is a problem."