Abortion access still an issue in Waterloo Region: SHORE Centre executive director

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which allows states in the country to ban abortion, could galvanize the anti-abortion movement in Canada

The Supreme Court’s decision reversed 50 years of progress in the U.S. and will likely result in the banning of abortion in more than half of the 50 states. 

“I think it’s pretty appalling that any state now has the right to restrict abortion access,” TK Pritchard, executive director of the SHORE Centre said. 

Despite Canada and the U.S.being on a different spectrum in terms of access to abortion, Pritchard said that debates like what is going on down south can potentially give a voice to the naysayers of abortion. 

“Those in Canada who would like to see different regulations around abortion and would like to restrict access are often inspired by what is happening in the U.S.,” Pritchard said. 

”You do have a lot of people in power in Canada, including politicians, who would love to reopen the abortion debate. While I don’t necessarily think that it would move forward on the floor, or that anyone would allow legislation to be pushed forward necessarily, even the reopening of that debate has repercussions. I think it’s one of those things where we always have to be really vigilant.”

Despite access issues, there are not currently laws restricting abortion in Canada. It is generally treated like other medical procedures and is regulated through provincial/territorial and professional bodies.  

Abortion has been decriminalized in Canada for over 30 years, though issues remain in accessing it in the country and in Waterloo Region. 

“I think one of the biggest barriers would be that it is very hard to figure out where you’re supposed to go,” Pritchard said.

Prior to its decriminalization in 1988, doctors were able to provide abortions in hospitals if the women’s pregnancy was endangering their life or health. 

The SHORE Centre – which provides education, outreach, pregnancy options and support, as well as a clinic – is looking to increase access to abortion in communities throughout the province.

“We’re a pretty small organization and there’s a lot of demand. Since the beginning of the pandemic, [we have] tripled the number of people that reach out to us for services. We’re always looking for ways how we can serve people better,” Pritchard said.

The non-profit organization is working on a multi-year project that looks to help increase access to smaller communities in Ontario. Even larger communities, like Waterloo Region, have access issues. 

“We only have surgical abortions up to 14 weeks, and people have to leave the region to access beyond that,” they said. “Meanwhile, there are very few medication abortion providers, with the centre being the main one.”

Medical abortions are possible for earlier parts of the pregnancy, while surgical abortions are necessary for later parts of pregnancy. 

“Abortion in a lot of ways, for many people, is still this issue that they don’t want to talk about that feels somewhat secretive,” Pritchard said. “There’s a lot of reasons why that is. But as organizations, we can do a lot to try and address that type of social stigma and make the information easier to access.” 

Choice Connect app

Shore’s “Choice Connect” app, launched in 2017 and launched nationally in 2019, allowing users to find abortion providers and tackle the solution of “where to go.” 

Through the app, users can find an abortion provider closest to them by answering a set of questions. Shore encourages providers to give enough information so users can make an informed choice. Some examples of information employers would provide are how many weeks pregnant the person is as well as if the office is accessible. 

“At the end of the day, abortion is just health care. And like any other piece of health care, you should be able to get that information easily from any provider,” Pritchard said. “It shouldn’t be stigmatized, you shouldn’t have to leave the region to access it.it should be something that more clinicians are providing.” 

There are still barriers to app development and usage, they explained.

“One is just getting (providers) to be listed,” said Pritchard. “There are lots of providers who have concerns about repercussions from protesters and other aspects that they list themselves publicly.  Sometimes it’s difficult to get folks to list, and sometimes there’s just nobody in the area.”

In some communities, providers will prescriptions for medication abortion, but not all pharmacies will fill it, which is a big challenge according to Pritchard. 

The Choice Connect app offers English and French language so far, while the organization is trying to add more languages as they move forward. 

Advocating for better access

Robyn Schwarz, a local advocate for reproductive justice and abortion doula herself, says access throughout the region needs to be improved and believes hospitals need to play a bigger part in making it easier. Schwarz was the project manager of Choice Connect when it launched as she is a former employee of the SHORE Centre. 

As an abortion doula, Schwarz has driven patients to out-of-town abortions. Abortion doulas provide support for patients during and after their procedures. As a result of access issues in Waterloo Region, Schwarz, 33, says she often drives people to London or Toronto who may need the procedure. Those that need the abortion can’t drive themselves as a sedative is required. 

Schwarz says that hospitals in the area, like Grand River Hospital, need to be more clear in terms of their abortion services so people can fully understand what they need to do to get one. 

“No one is really talking about (abortion), and there is still fear,” said Schwarz, who is pursuing her PhD at Western University. “It should be considered a totally normal thing.

“I think people are just overwhelmed because the system just makes it much harder than it should be to access this service.”

Schwarz, who had an abortion herself at the age of 21, also volunteers at Action Canada Access Line, which provides people a confidential line to ask questions about sexual health.  

Her journey in activism began a few years ago while she was living in London. In response to an anti-abortion group led by students, Schwarz and other students lobbied in support of abortion rights and access. 

According to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), despite abortion being considered a “medically required service” under the Canada Health Act, the services still don’t meet the purpose of the act in factors such as accessibility, universality, and portability.

The ARCC says access is difficult for people living in rural, remote, or conservative areas as well for minority and immigrant women, teenagers, and transgender people. 

According to stats provided by the ARCC and collected from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), there were 21,428 reported abortions in Ontario in 2020 and 74,155 nationally. 

SHORE Centre celebrates 50 years 

The SHORE Centre is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. It was originally named Planned Parenthood Kitchener-Waterloo followed by Planned Parenthood Waterloo Region. The centre grew out of the Birth Control Centre at the University of Waterloo and looks to provide for all community residents. 

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the centre, SHORE is hosting an event on August 11.

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