Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution Conference, August 7-8, 2014, Charlottetown, PEI

Dr. Shannon Stettner, Special Series Guest Editor

It’s hard to study abortion without being an activist.  Reading about or hearing women’s experiences with unplanned pregnancies, past and present, and the challenges they encounter and overcome – or don’t – in their efforts to end those pregnancies is politicizing. When you study abortion experiences from the 1960s, like I do, and compare them to the experiences of women in current day New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, you know that the issue is far from resolved.

Our conference, Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution, will be held at the University of Prince Edward Island on August 7 and 8, 2014.  When we (Colleen MacQuarrie, Tracy Penny Light and I) decided to issue a call for papers, we had no idea of the response we would get. We anticipated a small, local conference.  Instead, over the course of two days, more than 70 papers will be heard, with presenters coming from across North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, India, and Africa. Our conference is the first international academic conference on abortion in Canada.  It is clear from the response, that we have touched a nerve – or lit a spark.

The response is all the more surprising, given our location. While we recognized that holding the conference in Toronto might have raised our numbers or made logistics a little easier, our choice to hold the conference in Charlottetown, PEI was deliberate. PEI is the only province where Canadian women have no access to abortion.[1] The anti-abortion movement calls the island “a life sanctuary.” We think it’s time to bring abortion to the island – both symbolically, as we’re doing with the conference, and literally as one of our organizers, Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie, is attempting to do through her study of and activism around abortion on the island. MacQuarrie’s groundbreaking research on the effects that the lack of access to legal abortion has on the women in PEI will be highlighted in one of the posts to appear in this week’s series.

The conference is fortunate to have two keynote speakers who have contributed importantly to the study of abortion in North America: Ricke Solinger and Marlene Gerber Fried.

Solinger has done important work on how the politics of race in the United States have impacted the pregnancy and abortion experiences of black and white women there. Her many works include Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the U.S(2001), an extremely valuable contribution to discussions of abortion politicsSolinger’s keynote address, What makes ‘reproductive justice’ different from ‘reproductive rights’? will examine how the term “choice” has structured assumptions and policies regarding which women are defined as legitimate mothers and which are excluded or defined as “illegitimate” mothers as well as the consequences of associating women’s reproductive liberty chiefly with the consumerist term “choice.” She will then examine the possibilities opened up by an alternative term, reproductive justice, which “refers to women’s reproductive needs and also to their right to be mothers – legitimate mothers, worthy of adequate, respectfully delivered medical care, decent housing, a safe environment and the other basic human resources necessary to be a person, a mother, and a full and equal member of society – a set of conditions that cannot be captured simply via individual choices.”

Marlene Gerber Fried has made seminal contributions to the study of reproductive education and activism, including editing the influential From Abortion Rights to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming A MovementIn her closing address, Abortion Rights Activism and Reproductive Justice, Fried will trace large trends in the history of abortion and reproductive activism over the last forty years. She highlights the organizing by women of color and their allies outside the mainstream pro-choice movement, identifies priorities for future activism, including “youth-focused leadership and advocacy, a renewed emphasis on abortion as a public health issue, the need to combat the stigma and silence surrounding abortion,” and “argues that reproductive justice, is a compelling, expansive, and inclusive vision for safeguarding all aspects of reproductive rights and health, including access to safe and legal abortion.”

Our conference showcases the work of scholars and activists from around the world. In this week’s series, as an introduction to some of the research that will be presented at the conference, and in addition to MacQuarrie’s post on abortion access in PEI, we will feature the work of Katrina Ackerman, Jessica Shaw, and Karissa Patton who are all graduate students studying aspects of abortion in Canada

One area that has been well examined in Canadian history is the role of physicians in the history of abortion. Studies on the nineteenth century examine how physicians used the criminalization of abortion in their efforts to professionalize.  Doctors turn up in studies on abortion in the twentieth century often in relation to mid-century efforts to reform the criminal code.  Although works have included discussions of physicians who were both for and against decriminalizing abortion, Katrina Ackerman’s doctoral research importantly fleshes out our understanding of those who were against increased access to abortion. Her conference paper, excerpted here, looks beyond inflammatory critiques of antiabortion doctors as reacting from a place of irrationality, and looks at the scientific beliefs, as well as ethical, legal, and moral considerations that influenced individuals as well as the Canadian and international medical societies’ views on abortion. Advancements in neonatal medicine, the use of medical technologies to highlight embryological development, and the fact that most abortions were performed for socioeconomic reasons convinced these scientifically trained professionals to oppose abortion. These insights, she notes, are important to understanding the development and strength of anti-abortion politics and policies in the Maritimes. They also help to complicate our perceptions of the antiabortion movement in Canada.

Like Ackerman, Jessica Shaw’s piece is focused on the role of physicians in abortion access. While Ackerman explored the divisiveness among physicians who shared no consensus on when life begins or when or if an abortion should be permitted, Shaw highlights the tremendous cost and commitment of those doctors who support a woman’s right to access abortion services. Shaw’s work is noteworthy because she is collecting physician narratives, which is a novel approach to studying the place of physicians in the abortion issue.  In her conference paper, Shaw reminds us of the importance of stories in the de/criminalization of abortion: “It was stories of illegal abortion that compelled Canadians to demand that our country’s abortion laws be abolished. It is stories of women in areas where abortion remains inaccessible that remind us why our fight for abortion is not over.”  In her Active History contribution, Shaw outlines a narrative that holds tremendous importance for Canadian providers, which is the violence that began on November 8, 1994 and that, twenty years later, continues to both deter some physicians from performing abortions at the same time that it motivates others to do so.

Our third submission provides an important addition to a consideration of the thoughts, motivations, and actions of physicians, by highlighting women’s abortion experiences. In particular, this post explores the research of conference organizer Colleen MacQuarrie. MacQuarrie’s research examines the affect that PEI’s lack of abortion services has had on island women.  Most alarming, her research reveals women’s desperate actions in the face of unavailable and hard-to-access services, which harkens back to periods in the country’s history when abortion was illegal. MacQuarrie’s work is also an important example of how to marry academic study with activism.

The week of conference related posts ends with Karissa Patton’s paper, Parental Rights, Reproductive Rights, and Youth’s Sexuality in Alberta, Then and Now, which explores linkages between current and past debates over control of and access to sexual, birth, and abortion education.  Patton’s study of the history of tensions between and among parents over what their children learned about sex and birth control in Lethbridge, Alberta, helps to flesh out our understanding of the development of reproductive rights-based education in the West, as well as contributing to the story of how familial dynamics affected, and continues to, access to information on reproductive health.

In the weeks following the conference, we hope to share both the keynote addresses with Active History readers. Just as the conference name is a nod to the important work begun by activists in 1960s and 1970s, we have honoured the history of abortion rights activism by building discussion (or rap) sessions into the program, which we hope will form the basis not only of future work and activism, but future posts that can be shared here.

The full conference program and registration information can be found here.

Shannon Stettner is a postdoctoral visitor at York University and the Canadian Manuscripts Editor for the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. She specializes in Canadian abortion history and politics. You can follow her on Twitter @slstettner.

[1] Access to abortion services is severely limited elsewhere, like in the North. See, Christabelle Sethna,and Doull, M. “Accidental Tourists: Canadian Women, Abortion Tourism and Travel.” Women’s Studies: An interdisciplinary journal 41, 4 (2012): 457-475.

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