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Elizabeth Renzetti is a columnist and feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
When we think about reproductive freedom, we tend to concentrate on the right to end an unwanted pregnancy. The right to an abortion in the United States – enshrined in the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision – is now under serious threat in many parts of the country. In Canada, we don’t face such an immediate risk to our rights, but abortion services are patchy and uneven province to province, and difficult for many to access.
Abortion seemed like the single most important issue to fight for when I was a young feminist. It still is incredibly important, and a right that we need to vigilantly guard. But reproductive justice is about so many more things. It’s about ensuring equality for all people who give birth. It’s about addressing the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, and unequal birthing experiences for Black women. It’s about understanding the past to prepare for a better future.
I was thinking about all of these things while reading Heather Marshall’s excellent new novel, Looking for Jane, a fictional retelling of Canada’s “maternity homes” for single mothers, and the underground networks that provided abortions before the procedure was decriminalized. Marshall writes in her author’s note that her first inclination is to tell people her book is about abortion, “but it isn’t. Looking for Jane is about wanting to be a mother and not wanting to be a mother, and all the grey areas in between.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know about Canada’s awful history of “maternity homes” before I read Looking for Jane. Most often run by churches, they existed in the postwar period up until the early 1970s as a place to degrade unmarried pregnant women and separate them from their babies.
“Nurses, priests, social workers and other authority figures would reprimand the young women, telling them that they deserved punishment for their sins,” according to The Shame is Ours, a 2018 Senate committee report on maternity homes. “Punishment was delivered in various forms: humiliation, verbal abuse and dehumanizing and degrading treatment. In some instances there was physical and sexual abuse.”
Hundreds of thousands of babies were placed with married couples after their mothers were coerced into giving them up for adoption. The long-term consequences for the mothers were dire, as you can imagine: More than 80 per cent suffered from depression later in life, and one in five attempted suicide. The Senate committee called for an apology and reparations to women who suffered in these homes.
Forcing people into having babies and then using those babies as a sort of reward for childless couples may seem like a relic of the past, but this is the direction that the United States is heading if Roe v Wade is indeed overturned. Years ago when I was a fiery young feminist in university (see above), I became enraged when a fellow student suggested that women should be forced to carry unwanted babies and provide them to new homes. “Women aren’t walking incubators!” I said, or maybe yelled, which earned me the nickname Inky – short for incubator – for a long time after.
Who knew we’d still be here? Or that the underground abortion networks that Marshall writes about would once again be active in the United States – and vitally important. On Reddit, a forum composed of “aunties” offers advice and support for those seeking abortions in places where restrictions make them all but illegal. Jessica Bruder wrote recently in The Atlantic about the covert networks already operating and preparing to expand their work in a post-Roe United States, from armoured vans where procedures could be performed to smuggling pills to those who need them for medical abortions.
It’s hard to believe that fundamental rights are being rolled back this way. As always, the past provides a warning for the future. It provides a warning that reproductive freedom won’t exist until everyone can choose, safely and equitably, their own path.
What else we’re thinking about:
Now that we’ve agreed the world is craptacular (to quote Bart Simpson), where can we find relief? I’ve found a tiny of oasis of hope and comfort in Jonah Larson’s online crochet lessons. “Hello, crochet friends!” the teenager says with a wide smile as his fingers fly on his latest blanket or sweater. I’m useless when it comes to this set of skills – I once knit a sweater that had sleeves fit only for a gorilla – so I watch Jonah just for the sheer joy he takes in his creations and teaching others his craft. One day he may even persuade me, a yarnophobe, to give it a try.
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