A viral clip of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from his recent visit to the University of Manitoba circulated rapidly on social media. National and international news outlets celebrated his response to a young, self-acclaimed People’s Party of Canada voter and anti-abortionist.
Trudeau’s defence of a woman’s right to choose involved him appealing to the anti-abortionist’s humanity by using an extreme example of rape.
The prime minister was widely praised for his pro-choice response, which is understandable in a post-Roe v. Wade North America. There are continuous attacks on reproductive rights in the United States and fears the trend could migrate to Canada.
However, complex issues require complex analysis.
The two-minute viral clip showed Trudeau and the young man speaking on other political topics during the prime minister’s visit. After briefly discussing the federal government’s new dental care plan, the man expressed his opinion on a woman’s right to abortion:
“I think that if they sleep around, they should not be allowed to abort…”
Trudeau responds with a “wow,” shaking his head, taken aback by the misogynist and sexist remarks, and then raises the scenario of pregnant rape victims. This confuses the man, seemingly encouraging him to “do a little more thinking” on the issue at Trudeau’s behest.
Abortion is a human right
While Trudeau’s support for reproductive rights is encouraging, using the example of rape to justify abortion care neglects abortion as a human right and vital health care required for many diverse reasons by diverse people, including and excluding rape.
Raising the notion that there are acceptable and unacceptable reasons to terminate a pregnancy denies people’s agency and bodily autonomy, and oversimplifies complex issues around reproductive justice.
There are many reasons someone may choose to abort, including medical, economic and emotional issues. All are valid and all necessitate access to free, safe and legal abortion.
The Trudeau clip emerges as pro-life advocates in North America are threatening to cut off access to vital services based on issues of morality and religion, including here in Canada.
While Trudeau’s pro-choice advocacy is important on a national and international scale, advancing public discussions on abortion access and reproductive justice can help raise social awareness on these important issues — which disproportionately affect women who are racially marginalized and low-income.
Abortion and reproductive justice debates need to be based on the tenets of intersectionality and examine how race, class and gender inequalities combine to affect access to reproductive care. As it stands now, the politics of abortion in North America distort real people’s experiences.
The scene in Canada
Following last year’s reversal by the United States Supreme Court of Roe v. Wade, which upheld the constitutional right to abortion, anti-choice advocates in Canada were emboldened.
Unfortunately, the example used by Trudeau in his recent confrontation with the anti-abortionist reinforces the worst-case scenario for abortion access. It unwittingly encourages people to view abortion through a conservative lens.
Maxime Bernier, leader of the ultra-right People’s Party of Canada, has expressed anti-abortion sentiments, including calls to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.
The current leader for the Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, has claimed a newfound “pro-choice” stance. The Abortion Rights Coalition Of Canada (ARCC), however, lists anti-choice MPs based on voting history, including aligning with “pro-life” statements, events and campaigns. On this basis, the ARCC continues to list Poilievre as anti-abortion.
Abortion supporters are calling the Tory leader’s newfound stance on abortion a political manoeuvre with dangerous implications for reproductive rights if the Conservatives were ever to form government.
While Trudeau’s support for reproductive rights is appreciated and needed, we must ensure all people have access to vital health care — and not leave the impression that abortion is primarily most necessary for rape victims.
The On Canada Project, a community digital media platform focused on the experiences of marginalized Canadians, called Trudeau’s response “not great” on its Instagram page.
Samanta Krishnapillai, On Canada’s founder, said: “If you want an abortion, you should be able to get an abortion. That’s it.”
“When we focus these conversations around specific situations that can happen and result in a pregnancy that someone doesn’t want, we run the risk that that’s what the conversation becomes about, rather than just upholding people’s human rights.”
Krishnapillai received some criticism from commenters for her remarks, with some calling her “nitpicky,” “divisive” and even “angry.” She argued that her comments were not meant to attack the prime minister, but to deepen the discussion based on an intersectional understanding of the issue.
The fact is, Trudeau’s intentions were good. But the public’s understanding of difficult and complex issues must be improved to push back against harmful, dehumanizing rhetoric — and ensure human rights are upheld in our democracy.
As Krishnapillai put it: “There’s a lot of work to be done in Canada.”
Lesley Ann Foster receives funding from the GROWW program.