A province stuck in time? Award-winning film highlights barriers to reproductive choice in New Brunswick

Written by Tomi Gbeleyi on February 11, 2013

Peggy Cooke,former clinic escort and volunteer coordinator at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, is featured in the film, Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. Photo by Judy Burwell.

Peggy Cooke, former clinic escort and volunteer coordinator at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, is featured in the film, Status Quo: The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada. Photo by Judy Burwell.

Fredericton – An award-winning film by Montreal filmmaker Karen Cho that will premiere in Fredericton later this month emphasizes the dividends and continued relevance of feminism in Canada today by contrasting the accomplishments of past feminist demands with the status of women today.

From the depiction of the laughter and jeers which greeted the suggestion of spousal abuse as a serious societal issue in Canada at the House of Commons in 1982 to a declaration by a pro-life activist that selfishness and greed is the underlying cause of abortions, Status Quo?: The Unfinished Business of Feminism is a provocative movie that does not shy away from controversial issues.

Archival information about past feminism movements, personal accounts from women and experts in the film create a compelling tale which zeroes in on key concerns such as continued domestic violence against women, barriers to accessing abortion and the soaring costs of childcare in Canada.

The segment of the film that addresses the dynamics of reproductive choice in Canada centers on the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton.

In the film, Simone Leibovitch, Manager of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, explains that the provincial Medical Services Payment Act, that requires the approval of two doctors before a woman can have a publicly funded abortion is a huge barrier. For women who don’t have a doctor or whose doctor is anti-choice, their only option is to seek the services of the clinic.

“Audiences of the film will learn why so many women in this province have no choice but to terminate their unplanned pregnancy at the clinic and pay for it themselves. The unanswered question in this film is why the New Brunswick government, whether Conservative or Liberal, continues to shamefully ignore the rights of the women of New Brunswick who are entitled to abortion services covered by Medicare,” says Judy Burwell, a member of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and former Manager of the Morgentaler Clinic.

Although the Morgentaler clinic provides a valuable alternative to the limited resources for abortion within the health care system, women seeking a safe and legal abortion at the clinic have their access to abortion compromised by lack of support and privacy.

A doctor featured in the film had to remain anonymous due to the real threat of harassment and intimidation that abortion providers regularly face at their place of work or elsewhere in the community. Women seeking abortions and abortion providers are often treated with disdain in the community as evidenced by the opinions of anti-choice activists depicted in the film.

Celebrations over the reduced number of abortions in the province were contrasted with questions about the undocumented number of women who may have turned to self-treatment and unsafe methods in light of the varying obstacles.

Peggy Cooke, a Fredericton native now living in Toronto and author of the blog, Anti-Choice is Anti-Awesome, is featured in the movie. She worries about the many barriers facing women in accessing a safe and legal abortion.

“If I wanted an abortion, I could get one safely, but it’s only because I live in a large urban centre with many clinics, I have a valid Medicare card, I am a Canadian citizen (with white skin), I can afford to live close to the downtown core with good access to transit, I speak English, I know my rights, I am not in an abusive relationship, I am an adult, and on and on. Take away any one of these things and you have a barrier,” says Cooke.

Cooke notes that abortions done outside a safe and legal space often mean serious medical complications and sometimes death for women. “Attempting to perform an abortion on oneself is dangerous. And having someone else do it, someone who is not trained in the procedure or licensed to do it, is extremely risky as well,” says Cooke.

Even if a woman is able to access a safe and legal abortion despite the barriers, Cooke notes that the experience overcoming those barriers can lead to anxiety and depression. “When I worked at the clinic in Fredericton we would see many patients who were perfectly fine with their decision to terminate the pregnancy, but who required a great deal of counselling and comfort because they had been traumatized by the protesters outside, or by the ordeal of getting to that point,” adds Cooke.

Fear of pro-life picketers alone can be enough to prevent a woman from getting an abortion. “The fear of those people is very real, and I sympathize with anyone who is to overcome by the sight of them while trying to enter a clinic. They may be harmless, but how is a patient supposed to know that? After Dr. Tiller was shot I think a lot of people were especially unnerved by the presence of the protesters outside of clinics. How are you supposed to trust that people won’t attack you, since they’re already holding signs and screaming at you and you know they think you’re a murderer?” says Cooke.

Cooke has many suggestions for overcoming obstacles to abortion in New Brunswick, including free and accessible birth control, comprehensive sexual education, a national daycare program, better paid doctors and nurses and more sexual health clinics. She adds, “We also need to make abortion a thing we can talk about without shame; we need to stop stigmatizing it and whispering about it. Someone you know has had an abortion, whether you know it or not. It’s not that big a deal.”

Status Quo? premieres in Fredericton on Thursday, February 28th at 7:00 pm at Tilley Hall, Room 102, University of New Brunswick (9 Macaulay Lane). The film screening is a fundraiser for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and is co-hosted by Cinema Politica Fredericton and the UNB/STU University Women’s Centre.SQ-film

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