Liberal MP Paul Steckle introduces bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks

by Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

June 25, 2006
Updated October 4, 2008 – and again January 1, 2012

On June 21st, 2006, Parliament saw first reading of a private member’s bill by Liberal MP Paul Steckle to re-criminalize abortion. Bill C-338, ‘An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (procuring a miscarriage after 20 weeks of gestation), would restrict later abortions performed after twenty weeks. The bill didn’t go anywhere, but Steckle re-introduced the bill in October 2007. It died again when the election was called in September 2008. Although Steckle did not run for re-election, it’s quite likely that another anti-choice MP will resurrect the bill in the future.

The bill would allow exceptions to save the woman’s life and “to prevent severe pathological physical morbidity of the woman.” It would impose a prison term of up to two years, and/or a fine of up to $100,000 on anyone who “uses any means or permits any means to be used” to perform an abortion past 20 weeks. There is no exception allowed for fetal abnormalities, which currently comprise the majority of abortions done after 20 weeks, including those where the fetus is too deformed to survive after birth.

This bill is significant in that it is the first private member’s bill to directly attack abortion rights by attempting to return abortion to the Criminal Code. Another bothersome aspect of the bill is that it’s an obvious cynical ploy by the “Parliamentary Pro-life Caucus”—made up primarily of Conservative MP’s—to get around Harper’s promise not to legislate on abortion.

On its face, the bill is seriously misguided and completely unnecessary. Instead of limiting access to abortion, we need to expand it. Access is still unequal and spotty across the country. One reason that some women need second-trimester abortions is because they were unable to access first-trimester abortions. So, an effective way to reduce later abortions is to guarantee and fund widespread access to subsidized contraception, comprehensive sexual health education, and first-trimester medical and surgical abortion— none of which are included in Steckle’s bill.

Regardless, the bill is trying to solve a “problem” that doesn’t even exist. About 90% of abortions are done by 12 weeks in Canada, and about 97% by 16 weeks. Only 0.3% of abortions occur after 20 weeks gestation, almost all because of serious fetal or maternal health problems. So the reason for this bill is clearly cynical — it will be used as a foot-in-the-door to enact even more restrictions against abortion. Read our 2006 editorial on why Canada doesn’t need any new law against abortion, plus a new one from October 2008 that takes a more global perspective.

To highlight Canada’s access problems, here’s an excerpt from the January 2006 Choice Update (PDF), published by Ottawa-based Canadians For Choice:

We have a baseline against which to measure whether a woman’s right to choose is being rolled back.

That baseline shows that eighteen years after the historic Morgentaler decision, Canadian women still face challenges with realizing choice, in particular with access to abortion services. A recent national study of access to abortion services at hospitals across Canada found that:

  • only 17.8 of all general hospitals in Canada perform abortions, with some jurisdictions, such as Prince Edward Island and Nunavut offering no hospital abortion services at al;
  • even hospitals providing abortions place obstacles in the way of women trying to obtain one, including restrictive gestational limits and long wait times (sometimes 2-3 weeks);
  • in many cases, hospital employees are not able to provide women with information about alternative resources;
  • physicians and hospital employees deny women access by refusing information and referrals, or by referring women to anti-choice angecies; and
  • many women have to travel significant distances to obtain abortion services, which is time consuming, expensive and conflicts with work and child care.

The facts on later abortions in Canada

Click here to read ARCC’s position paper on late-term abortions in Canada (PDF file), covering the incidence and reasons for later abortions in Canada.

Following is a breakdown on the total numbers of surgical abortions by gestation time, based on StatsCan 2003 data (Excel spreadsheet), combined with a representative sampling of 2005 clinic data across Canada. [1] This includes medical abortions by methotrexate, which are all done earlier than 7 weeks, and comprise less than 1.5% of all abortions in Canada.

  • 5-12 weeks — 90.1%
  • 13-16 weeks — 7.4%
  • 17-20 weeks — 2.0%
  • >20 weeks — 0.3%

320 abortions were done over 20 weeks gestation in 2003. [2] Almost all of these occurred between 20 and 22 weeks, a small number for compelling social reasons — e.g., teenagers who were in denial of their pregnancy, women in abusive relationships, etc.— but most were done for serious maternal health reasons or fetal anomalies. Only a tiny handful of doctors in all of Canada are trained and willing to do abortions after 20 weeks.

The 3rd trimester begins after 24 weeks. The number of abortions done after 24 weeks in Canada is very small, although we don’t have exact figures. Without exception, all are done in cases of lethal fetal abnormality, where the fetus cannot survive after birth.

[1] ARCC-CDAC collected and analyzed this data informally. because most clinics don’t report to StatsCan. )  (Almost all clinics in Canada now report data to CIHI, the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which has taken over data collection on abortion from StatsCan.) Sorry, but we can’t give out the clinic data we used for security/confidentiality reasons (sample size: 8 clinics). Important Note: Almost all clinics do only early abortions, up to 12 or 16 weeks gestation, and clinics do about 45% of all abortions in Canada. Since many clinics weren’t reporting to StatsCan in 2003, Since most clinics don’t report to StatsCan, the StatsCan figures reflect mostly hospital abortions, which means that 1) the overall percentages of abortions after 16 weeks shown in the StatsCan table are skewed higher than reality, and 2) the number of abortions before 12 or 16 weeks is underreported.  [Note: Corrections in red made January 1, 2012]

[2] This figure was obtained from StatsCan on a proprietary basis and released by the National Abortion Federation at the NAF Annual Meeting in San Francisco, April 22, 2006.


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