While the 1988 Morgentaler decision secured the right to legal abortion in Canada, barriers still exist that can make accessing an abortion difficult. One of the main barriers to abortion include a number of commonly-held myths about abortion. This document is intended to help debunk and challenge these myths.
MYTH: People use abortion as a means of birth control/people won’t bother with contraception if abortion is easily available.
Everyone makes decisions that are informed by their current circumstances and what resources are available to them to keep themselves healthy and thriving. This includes decisions we make when it comes to choosing a method of birth control. Typically, obtaining contraception is easier than accessing abortion services and there is no evidence that shows people use abortion as a primary method of birth control. That said, having access to one service does not mean we might not need access to the other. Abortion is one part of a comprehensive package of sexual health services. Most people who get abortions report using contraception during the month they became pregnant. No one can assume or know the reasons why someone may face an unplanned pregnancy. Needing an abortion may be due to contraceptive failure (e.g. a condom breaking, getting pregnant despite being on the pill), a lack of access to accurate reproductive and sexual health information, a lack of access to accessible and affordable birth control methods, or sexual assault. Regardless of the circumstances, people facing unplanned pregnancies have a right to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including abortion services.
While women are not the only people who have abortions, 1 in 3 women will have an abortion before the age of 45. It is a very common procedure. People who have never needed an abortion are sometimes curious or make assumptions about why people make the choice to have one. The reality is, people get abortions for a myriad of reasons.
Making a choice about abortion, adoption, or parenting is based on individual life circumstances. Many people will choose to have an abortion because their social, economic, or health circumstances make them unable or unwilling to continue a pregnancy or raise a child at that moment, or ever. Others may feel it is important to time and space the number of children born into their family to ensure that all their children are properly cared for. Others may have become pregnant following a sexual assault or reproductive coercion. Others may have been told the catastrophic news that the fetus they are carrying has a lethal abnormality. Others may be going through a disruption of some sort, like unemployment, a move, or domestic violence.
While the range of emotions one may feel when having to make a decision about terminating a pregnancy vary widely, the complexity of factors influencing one’s decision to have an abortion means this is a decision that no one else but the person having to make that choice is in a position to evaluate. People know best about what to do about their unintended pregnancy.
MYTH: Because there is no abortion law in Canada, abortions are common through all nine months of pregnancy.
The vast majority of abortions (over 90%) occur in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (or the first trimester). While there are no legal limits to when an abortion can be performed in Canada, each abortion provider can impose a gestational limit as a part of their practice depending on their training and the facilities available to them. This means that access to abortion beyond a certain point in a pregnancy may be more or less difficult depending on where the person is located. Currently, no abortion provider is listed as offering the procedure past 23 weeks and 6 days in Canada.
The myth that those who choose to access abortion have to do so because they are promiscuous and/or irresponsible over-simplifies what leads to people facing unintended pregnancies. All kinds of people, from diverse and varied backgrounds, experience unintended pregnancy. Contraception is not always 100% available and effective and people are not always in a position to consent to sex. Studies have shown that between half and two-thirds of people who have an abortion were using contraception at the time they became pregnant. Sex and contraceptive use are areas informed and impacted by the circumstances of people’s lives, including by factors like their health (irregular periods, menopause, etc.), the relationships they are in, the supports they have, resources available, substance use, medical conditions, and stress, among other things.
Furthermore, sex, as well as contraceptive use, is not always voluntary. Many people seeking abortion have not been in a position where they could freely agree to sex or use their contraceptive method of choice. This may apply to people who are in or outside of a relationship.
As for the myth that people who need abortions are promiscuous, this one relies on the sexist trope that women are either “good” or “bad” and on our collective discomfort with sex and sexuality. Sex negativity, the belief that sex is inherently bad, is deeply intertwined with our culture. Sex and women’s bodies are often used in arguments about morality. Women are often judged harshly in relation to their sexuality, in ways men are not.
All significant life decisions can bring a range of emotions. No evidence has been found to support the existence of “post-abortion syndrome,” the controversial term coined to describe the alleged psychological and emotional difficulties people face after an abortion. While everyone may respond differently to their abortion, depending on many factors including the support they receive from family and friends, there is a greater risk of psychological harm when a person chooses to have an abortion but is refused one than if they are provided with timely and compassionate abortion care.
The reality is, whenever studies are done with people who have accessed abortion, a majority of people report that they did not find abortion emotionally or psychologically harmful. Although some people find it stressful or difficult in the short-term, most cope positively and do not experience long-term problems.
This is false – an early abortion is many times safer than childbirth. Anti-choice groups often claim that abortions cause damage due to uterine scarring and cervical damage, but statistics indicate that complications of abortion are rare – only about 0.5% of abortions result in complications, and these are generally minor and treatable, such as infection. There is no medically accepted evidence that shows any link between abortion and any type of illness or disease. Myths exist that attempt to link abortion and breast cancer, among other diseases, but these claims are unsubstantiated by scientific data.
Having an abortion does not impact one’s ability to reproduce in the future. A first trimester abortion is a safe and simple medical procedure, and while some false and fabricated claims link abortion with miscarriage or infertility, they are unsubstantiated by scientific data. While in the past people faced potential risks of physical damage and infertility due to unsafe abortions being performed by unqualified physicians, this was largely the result of abortion being driven underground through its criminalization. The decriminalization of abortion means that trained providers now perform the procedure under the same high-quality conditions as other health care procedures.
In recent years, anti-choice activists have been propagating the myth that abortion disproportionately targets female fetuses. This tactic relies on the language of human rights and feminism to try and limit access to abortion for all people when there is no evidence supporting their claims. Firstly, upwards of 90% of abortions happen before the end of the first trimester and so, well before people can find out the sex of the fetus. While sex selective abortion in Canada may take place in some instances, it is incredibly rare and the reasons why people may make that choice are varied. In the cases of sex selective abortions happening because a family may favour one sex over the other, the solution is not a blanket ban on abortion, but rather to challenge societal attitudes that favour giving birth to sons over daughters.
Abortion and parenthood are not in opposition to each other. Many of the people who access abortion are already parents. Their decision is often influenced by the desire to ensure they can take the best possible care of the child or children they already have. Parents who choose abortion fully understand what parenting entails and what is needed to adequately care for another child. Family planning can strengthen family life as it means people can plan the number, spacing and timing of their children.
For people who do not wish to become parents themselves, forcing pregnancy and parenthood on them would in no way strengthen the concept of family life. People are best positioned to decide how and with whom they wish to form a family.
This statement ignores the fact that all contraceptives, even when properly and consistently used, occasionally fail. Good sexual health education that teaches individuals how to use contraception is lacking in many schools, communities, and homes, which leads many people to use contraception incorrectly or relying on ineffective methods. Moreover, contraceptives are not always made easily accessible, nor are they always affordable.
Adoption is one choice people have when they face an unintended pregnancy and they do not wish to parent the child. For those who wish to choose adoption, they should have all the necessary support and resources to ensure they, the child and the adoptive family are well and thrive. That said, many anti-choice activists aim to present adoption as a “middle ground” people should choose to reduce abortion rates, but adoption and abortion should not be presented as equivalent options.
To put a baby up for adoption means that the person who faces an unintended pregnancy must carry the pregnancy to term. Pregnancy and birth can have a profound effect on someone’s health even years after childbirth. Pregnancy and birth also carry far more risk than a first trimester abortion. Some individuals cannot carry out a pregnancy due to health reasons, work, their family situation, or childcare responsibilities. For some, carrying that pregnancy to term and relinquishing the baby can be traumatic.
Adoption is an important option for people who face an unintended pregnancy, but it is not equivalent to an abortion and is a very personal choice that can only be made by the person who is pregnant.
While abortion is legal in Canada, many barriers prevent individuals from accessing abortion when they need one. Abortion services are only available in 1 out of every 6 hospitals, many require doctor’s referrals, and the majority of providers are located in urban centres within 150km of the U.S.-Canada border. This means that those in northern, remote, or rural communities must often travel long distances to access abortion. Other barriers include unexpected costs and travel times, accommodation costs, reciprocal billing issues, and anti-choice individuals and organizations providing misleading information.
In the first trimester, there is an embryo, which develops into a fetus after the end of the second month of gestation. In these early stages of pregnancy, the fetus is not an autonomous being. At the time when almost all abortions are performed, the fetus is not viable, meaning it could not survive on its own outside of the womb. Using inflammatory words like “killing” or “murder” to describe abortion inaccurately equates an embryo – something which has the potential to become a person – with an actual person and is meant to elicit strong feelings of disapproval in people. It pits this potential existence with the rights and bodily autonomy of an actual person who is alive and living in the world and who can make decisions about what is best for their bodies, their lives, and their families.
What people personally believe can be dynamic as a wanted pregnancy can certainly be experienced as ‘a baby’ by the person who is carrying the embryo or fetus. Still, this doesn’t supplant the human rights of people who can get pregnant. Morals and beliefs are personal and subjective – the idea that abortion is “morally wrong” is a personal viewpoint that cannot be argued with scientific or medical evidence and should not dictate policy and health care. Both the Canadian Medical Association and the Supreme Court of Canada recognize that, legally, personhood begins at birth.
Abortion rates in countries where abortion is illegal are approximately the same as in countries where abortion is permitted. This proves that even when the procedure is illegal, individuals will find ways to terminate a pregnancy. Criminalizing abortion will not stop abortions, but it will stop safe abortions. Canadian history shows that people will use dangerous methods to self-induce an abortion, or visit unregulated abortion providers, in regions where abortion is not legal and accessible. These unsafe abortions can result in hemorrhaging, infertility, and death.
Pro-choice individuals believe in all aspects of sexual and reproductive health and rights, including the belief that an individual faced with an unintended pregnancy should be able to make their own decision about whether or not to continue the pregnancy to term. Pro-choice people recognize and support individuals in making their own choice when it comes to the three options that exist when facing an unplanned pregnancy: abortion, adoption, and parenting. To be pro-choice means to be pro-abortion when people need to access it and pro-supports for parents and families when people choose to continue a pregnancy.
MYTH: Giving young people information about sexuality and abortion encourages them to have sex and engage in promiscuous behaviour.
Studies clearly indicate that effective and comprehensive sexual health education, including information on contraception and abortion, encourages individuals to make empowered and knowledgeable decisions about their sexual health and are better able to access and use contraception and practice safer sex.