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What the Pollster Didn't Ask

Biased Poll Fuels Anti-Abortion Myths

published September 8, 2010 in Straight Goods

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

The polling company Angus Reid recently took it upon itself to conduct a survey to measure the public's knowledge of abortion law in Canada. According to the Vice-President of Public Affairs, Jaideep Mukerji, abortion is an important social issue and "one that we want to make sure we understand." But knowing the legalities of abortion in Canada is a very small and misleading part of the picture.

The survey hid the reality that abortion care is subject to many extra-legal restrictions. Less than 20% of hospitals perform abortions, even though it's a very simple procedure. Abortion is only readily available in Canada's largest cities. Women must often navigate obstacles, such as finding an appropriate hospital or clinic in her area, travelling long distances, contending with aggressive anti-choice protestors, facing unsympathetic hospital personnel who may lie to or mistreat women, and paying out of pocket for a procedure that is fully funded under Medicare.

Only 21% of Canadians surveyed in the poll knew that a woman had a right to an abortion "with no legal restrictions whatsoever." But abortion care is not a free-for-all in Canada – it's limited by the institutions that deliver healthcare. For example, most clinics only perform abortions up to 14 or 16 weeks gestation, while many hospitals only go up to 12 weeks. This would help explain why 41% of Canadians think abortion is available only in the first trimester. In New Brunswick, the government claims that only "medically-required" hospital abortions are permitted. But all abortions are medically-required under the Canada Health Act whether done at hospitals or clinics, and women have a right to abortion on request without having to state a reason.

Because women still have to jump through hoops to get an abortion, it's logical to assume it's regulated by law. After all, abortion is still criminalized in virtually all countries, even though it's a basic, life-saving health procedure that half of all women will need during their lifetimes. Criminal laws are artifacts of Victorian morality and the Catholic Church's historical oppression of women. There isn't a shred of evidence that regulating abortion in any way is effective or helpful for women or society. In fact, abortion laws violate women’s rights and are harmful to women's health because they tend to prevent or delay care. They also don't reduce abortion - countries with strict laws have well-developed black markets for abortion.

Medical procedures should be governed by medical policy, and the Canadian Medical Association's policy on induced abortion works just fine. It recommends abortion on request up to 20 weeks, and after that only under "exceptional circumstances" - which essentially means rare life-and-death reasons. It would be cruel to criminalize this tiny subset of women in the most desperate of circumstances, or the medical professionals who help them. Unfortunately, media coverage of the survey stoked the fear that women can "choose" abortion right up to the moment of birth.

The survey did highlight a couple of genuine problems. Women who need abortions may be deterred or delayed if they think it's illegal or unavailable, so it's essential that they have accurate information on their rights and the services available. Second, the public needs to be better informed about why any abortion law is harmful and unnecessary. Canada's abortion rate has been declining steadily since 1999, despite having no law. A similar phenomenon has been occurring in western Europe, which has the lowest abortion rates in the world and mostly liberal abortion laws. The secret is simple: The more that society trusts women and truly supports their needs and rights, the fewer unwanted pregnancies and abortions women have.

Angus Reid's survey reinforces anti-abortion myths and acts like a depth charge in the culture wars. Almost every poll question is biased and can be read as an urgent invitation to "do something about it." Suggested options - such as funding bans, parental consent laws, and mandatory counseling - were lifted right out of the anti-choice playbook and have been proven harmful in the U.S. The survey's apparent objective is to stir the pot in order to "re-open the debate", which is nothing more than anti-choice code for recriminalizing abortion. Only 30% of the respondents wanted to do that however - just one more compelling reason we don't need an abortion law.

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Coordinator of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC,