By Lana Payne, Naureen Rivzi and Joie Warnock
As elected Unifor leaders and trade union women, we fight for equality every single day both at the collective and political bargaining table.
We are part of a proud history of trade union women who have fought for and continue to fight for full equality - integral to that equality is reproductive choice or women’s ability to have control over our own bodies.
This right is not only sadly unrealized for many, but it is also under attack around the world. If we are forced to once again speak about the right to choose and have authority over our own bodies, it is because right-wing forces refuse to concede a fight they have already lost over and over again.
This week, the women of Poland went on strike against a government proposal to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. They are fighting to keep the restricted rights they currently have.
In the United States, Republican lawmakers have waged a sustained and brutal attack against reproductive rights. Some right-wing forces appear to be emboldened both in the U.S. and at home here in Canada.
As leaders in Canada’s largest private sector trade union and as feminists, we want to be very clear: neither we nor our union will ever stand by while the reproductive justice rights of the women of Canada are challenged, rolled back, or diminished.
While the past century has seen an improvement in the rights and lives of women, non-binary and trans people in Canada, the work is no where near done. As we look back in history, we know that these rights have always been fought for, never just given and that the fight that lays ahead does not include rolling back the clock on the progress we've made so far.
A fundamental right is the right to make the choice about our reproduction.
In 1988 - yes, that's 31 years ago! - the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the Criminal Code sections on abortion. This was one of the last legal frontiers to truly pave the way for reproductive justice and a time when Canada became one of a small number of countries without a law restricting abortion.
Further access was fought for and gained through the licencing and health care coverage of medical abortion pills. This medical, versus surgical route, greatly supports the access of rural and poor communities. There is still much work to be done in to ensure universal access.
It is with horror that we are witnessing the swift move backwards on women’s reproductive rights in the United States. Nine states have introduced or passed legislation curtailing access to abortion. Two of those states have all but removed the right. Most recently in Alabama, the state passed a ban on all abortions including in cases of rape. Canadian anti-abortion groups are cheering.
In Canada, we’ve seen statements by politicians, particularly Conservative politicians, including most recently by MPP Sam Oosterhoff, which signal that restrictions would be brought in if given the chance. This is frightening.
Federally, we also have reason to be extra vigilant. Anti-abortion groups believe they have a good friend in Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who says he will not “re-open the abortion debate”. But what does that mean, exactly? The pressure on him to curtail women’s rights will be great, including by many within his own caucus. Scheer has told the anti-abortion group RightNow that his MPs are free to submit Private Members’ bills that restrict abortion rights. He has also said he will not whip his MPs vote on these bills. In other words, abortion rights can easily tumble backwards without Scheer “opening the debate.” He can leave that work to his MPs.
Indeed previous Conservative governments have used Private Members’ Bills to introduce legislation that the government itself would like, but also does not want to be tagged with, instead hiding behind the independence of individual MPs.
We now have seven Conservative Governments across Canada and we fear we could be facing a Conservative Government federally this fall. This hits the threshold of being able to bring in Constitutional changes including changes to our equality rights under the Charter.
No one should have the power to dictate to anyone else what they can or can't do with their bodies. Most clearly, we don’t force birth on women, non-binary or trans people.
As trade union women, we know that rights are never given, but taken through struggle and courage and because citizens came together to demand them at a bargaining table or in the streets. We also know that conservative forces are gaining ground around the world and here in Canada and this is having a profound impact on the rights we have won and the gains we have made for women and for workers.
There is no equality without reproductive justice. And like the trade union women before us, we will defend, demand and fight for the rights of all women. We will defend, demand and fight for reproductive choice as the foundation to achieving full equality.