Interview with Professor Colleen MacQuarrie, Ph.D. — Professor, Psychology, University of Prince Edward Island
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How can the young become involved in the issues around reproductive rights?
Professor Colleen MacQuarrie: If you are thinking nationally, I would say that if you are interested in social justice issues. You look to people acting locally if you can. Sometimes, there are organizations connected to more broad-based national and even global networks.
It is important to think of all of those levels of the structure and how you might fit in, how your skills might fit into action on one of those fronts. For example, I know every province would have different organizations.
They would go by different names. Often, you will find these organizations hooked up with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. There is the National Abortion Federation that spans both the United States and Canada.
It is always important to be linked to these bigger national bodies, to have an idea of how your local issues link up to the larger systemic issues. In rural and Northern communities, you will have an incredibly similar situation as to what we have had in PEI.
It is harder to get access. Activism in terms of Physicians for Choice if you are a medical student or if you are a lawyer — making sure that you understand the laws around that and can be in your own sphere of influence. In terms of partnering for access, there will be people already working to help you. They have the toll-free lines.
In PEI, if you are beyond 12 weeks and 5 days, they do not have the equipment here to perform the abortion you need, so you need to go to another place. There has to be support in place in order to be able to do that.
Our local abortion rights network has now been affiliated with the women’s health centre. They work with us to help support women if they need a drive from one place to another. It is a matter of knowing what your local situation is and plugging into that and imagining how the local situation plugs into the larger picture.
I think there is a regrouping of the anti-abortionists in Canada. They are trying to come up with some re-branding of some old ideas. They are trying to claim that abortion harms women. At first, when we started our work here the antis were chanting that “abortion is murder.”
Once our preliminary findings came out and that unsafe abortions harm women’s health, we kept our messaging really clear and tight to the evidence that we had. Suddenly, the anti-abortion message came out: “Abortion harms women’s health.” It seems like the anti-abortionists take what you say from your research and turn it around.
One thing based on some of my research is that women who were constrained to get abortions had to go through hurdles and achieved a certain level of self efficacy that they had never known in their lives. I want to frame the search for an abortion that is safe as something that allows you to hold your dignity, leaving situations of violence to obtain an abortion as something fostering self-actualization — quite the opposite of what has been termed the abortion syndrome, which has been, through a number of research studies, debunked.
There are all kinds of things that the anti-abortionists and organizers talk about to try to say that abortion harms women which have been soundly debunked such as, abortion is connected to breast cancer. No research supports these anti-abortion statements.
MacQaurrie: I didn’t do the specific research, but there is research that no abortion is not harming women. The antis claim it is harming women’s mental health. No, abortion in itself does not harm women’s health. Often, the conditions women are living in harm women’s health.
There has always been a reframing. The branding they are trying to put across is that the new generation is above abortion. I think that is making them superior beings.
Jacobsen: I want to clarify on one point. If a jurisdiction or a bounded geography — some area — makes abortion illegal, does the research state that this decreased the rate of abortions?
MacQuarrie: Never, the research evidence is overwhelming, e.g. in Canada, in the US, certainly on the continent of Africa. Unsafe abortions are on the rise any time that you restrict abortion access then you have an increase in unsafe abortions.
All you do when you restrict abortion access is create the conditions for harm.
Jacobsen: How does this damage a woman’s reproductive organs potentially if in an unsafe circumstance? How does this potentially put a woman’s life at risk if done in an unsafe circumstance?
MacQuarrie: I think that we also have to put the whole thing in context. Pregnancy is actually more risky than a safe abortion, which is really interesting. We don’t often talk about the whole complexity of reproductive lives.
A pregnancy is actually a riskier thing than a safe abortion in safe conditions. So, depending on how an abortion is performed, if it is unsafe, then it is not performed by appropriate measures. Of course, the woman can die.
I think that the National Abortion Federation has some clear statistics as does the international organization, World Health Organization, that the rates of the number of women who die from unsafe abortions every year, especially in sub-Saharan Africa are shocking.
Our study showed that even in places that appear to be developed, restricting abortion access — making women travel farther, for example, the rate of harm goes up. Locally, when you have abortion restriction, what you see will be a rise in the women being later in their pregnancy getting, the abortion; so, the later you are in your pregnancy then this increases some of the risks in terms of the difficulties in performing the abortion, but also the holistic toll on a woman’s well being.
Even when they thought there were no abortions in PEI, there were abortions in PEI. The province’s own health records showed unsafe abortions were happening. Also, around the time of when we were trying to get our findings out, there was a newborn that was left in a paper bag beside one of the churches. Shocking. We have to remember that infanticide also comes with abortion access restrictions. Apparently the authorities were concerned about the health of the mother too — so, we don’t even know who would have placed the baby there — whether it was another person, perhaps a violent partner or controlling parent who put the baby there. We have to face up to some issues here.
Who has the interest in blocking women’s access to abortion? What society are we in if we are to deny the bodily autonomy of half of our population? I think there are physical repercussions and mental repercussions that are deeply concerning if you are telling people that they are walking wombs.