(June 20, 2022) In April, prior to the 2022 budget, Imagine Canada, the country’s largest lobby group for charities took issue with the Liberal government’s campaign promise to stop providing charity status to Crisis Pregnancy Centres, despite the harm these groups can cause vulnerable women.
The Liberal party platform states that a Liberal government will “[n]o longer provide charity status to anti-abortion organizations (for example, Crisis Pregnancy Centres) that provide dishonest counseling to women about their rights and about the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy.”
The Crisis Pregnancy Centres mentioned in the Liberal platform are, according to Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, “anti-abortion organizations disguised as clinics that provide counseling and other prenatal services. They often provide inaccurate information about abortion or pregnancy options. This may delay or interfere with access to abortion and contraceptive services and improperly influence reproductive health decisions.”
The inclusion of this position in the Liberal Party platform came after the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), raised the issue at a government roundtable held prior to the 2021 election. ARCC is a coalition of Canadian women’s groups and individuals who work to preserve and grow full rights and access to reproductive health options, including abortion, to Canadians.
“When they asked us about the problems we were facing, we talked about anti-choice charities who spread misinformation and cause harm, and were not facing any consequences for their actions,” says ARCC’s long-time executive director, Joyce Arthur.
But, like a pursed-lipped performative feminist standing in front of an Old Spice counter, Imagine Canada says, it is “opposed to this manner of proposed legislative change, on the basis that it is both unnecessary and misguided … Should an amendment to the ITA [Income Tax Act] be sought that sets a standard for truth-telling by charities, we are concerned our sector may become vulnerable to interventions driven by the political whims of future governments.”
Their technocratic tsk tsk—apart from suggesting that setting a standard for truth-telling makes the entire sector vulnerable—is a deft bit of shruggery that diminishes the importance of a woman’s right to choose, the role of government in upholding that codified right, and the harm some charitable organizations are perpetuating on vulnerable women.
ARCC has a long history of making complaints to CRA about the disinformation disseminated by anti-choice groups, including Crisis Pregnancy Centres, Arthur explains.
“Since 2005, we have made more than 60 complaints to CRA about the way anti-choice groups operate, thinking it would, at least, result in the organizations getting audited.”
But because of the confidentiality rules around complaints, ARCC never knew the outcome of the complaints, if audits were done or any of the information provided was checked out. According to Arthur, none of the charities that ARCC raised concerns about ever had their charity status revoked.
“Our point was, why should they have charity status when they promote disinformation about reproductive health. They are not serving a public benefit. They are seeking to challenge people’s rights,” she says.
“What the government funds and supports needs to be in line with Canada’s human rights obligations, and we are concerned about people starting to get in the way of essential health services,” says Frederique Chabot, director of domestic health promotion at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
“Crisis Pregnancy Centres cover a wide range of organizations,” she says. “Some are in church basements but some look like a regular health clinic. What makes them different is that they have a specific goal in mind, which is to persuade people not to have abortions. Their disinformation includes exaggerating risks of abortion, sharing debunked theories such as the idea that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer and infertility, providing discredited information about what they call post-abortion syndrome, comparing it to PTSD.”
In 2018, Action Canada became an intervenor in a case where the anti-choice group Toronto Right to Life sued the Canadian government because the government’s 2017 Canada Summer Jobs Program agreement required funded groups to say neither their core mandates nor the jobs being funded actively worked to undermine constitutional, human, and reproductive rights.
In October 2021, a federal court judge sided with the Federal Government saying, it was ‘reasonable’ for Ottawa to require applicants to its summer-jobs program to declare themselves in support of constitutional, human and reproductive rights in order to get funding, according to reporting by Global News at the time.
And despite the Canada Summer Jobs program ultimately tweaking the wording of its agreement, the judge said the program’s original agreement fell within the labour minister’s authority and had a “minimal” impact on the Plaintiff’s charter rights.
“We were an intervenor in this case because we didn’t want reproductive rights to be infringed upon. We believe the purpose of government is to enforce constitutional and human rights,” says Chabot. “And the judge agreed.”
Anti-choice groups use the charity system much more robustly than pro-choice groups.
According to ARCC data, there are 315 anti-choice groups operating in Canada, 152 of which are so-called Crisis Pregnancy Centres. Ninety-three percent of Crisis Pregnancy Centres—which ARCC calls “fake clinics”—are registered charities.
By comparison, aside from stand-alone abortion clinics and hospitals where abortion care is provided, there are 37 local, regional and national pro-choice organizations in Canada, only 3 of which are charities.
Below is a graphic summarizing the information from Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
“Being a registered charity gives the veneer of credibility, whether that’s warranted or not,” says Arthur. “Crisis Pregnancy Centres are skilled at raising money. Of course, when you are a charity, you have much more opportunity and support to do that.”
Arthur says there could be several reasons why anti-choice groups avail themselves of the charity system more than pro-choice groups.
“Pro-choice groups aren’t applying for charity status because they understand that their work fighting for women’s rights is political work, whereas anti-choice charities view themselves as virtuous and deserving. They don’t see themselves as political, they see themselves as doing righteous community work,” says Arthur.
“But disseminating disinformation is not righteous or charitable. It is harming vulnerable people.”
There are few clearer demonstrations of inequity than the passing of laws that give the state control over women’s bodies; cruel, senseless, inefficient laws that prevent a woman from terminating a pregnancy and force her to carry an unwanted child to term.
No clearer demonstration that is, except for the threat caused by organizations who stand by when human rights are threatened and decide to take the side of the status quo.
Yet here we are.
The leaked opinion of right-wing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito appears to indicate that the women of the world’s largest economy are looking down the barrel of a gun at the end of the only national measure guaranteeing them access to a full range of reproductive health services.
It’s a grim reality and in the tumult Canadian women are wondering just how solid their own rights are.
In Ontario and Alberta, there are more than twice as many Crisis Pregnancy Centres as there are clinics or hospitals where abortions can be obtained. Many of these centres have a religious affiliation.
An infographic below from Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights shows the provincial breakdown of Crisis Pregnancy Centres compared to the number of sites offering abortion services.
A week after the Alito opinion leak, the government of Canada was sufficiently concerned to have “announced more than $3.5 million in funding for two initiatives it says will improve access to abortion services and reproductive health information in Canada,” according to CBC.
The funding will help cover travel and accommodation cost for those seeking abortions, help train health care providers to perform abortions and ensure facilities have the capacity to conduct the procedure. The funds come from a 2021 budget commitment of $45 million to increase accessibility to sexual and reproductive services for vulnerable populations.
As it stands, there is no federal law governing access to abortion in Canada, a position Action Canada supports.
“We do not want the Federal Government to legislate abortion as it risks bringing in restrictions that do not currently exist,” says Chabot. “It is currently treated as a medical procedure, meaning it is implemented through the Canada Health Act, a piece of legislation guided by pillars of accessibility, portability, and the obligation to be publicly funded. Even still, better enforcement mechanisms are needed for the Canada Health Act and increased federal health transfers tied to sexual and reproductive health care are required to systemically address the lack of available services in many provinces.”
In 1988, the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Morgentaler became Canada’s equivalent to Roe v. Wade. In that 5-2 ruling, the Supreme Court of Canada decided the section of the Criminal Code which banned abortion violated Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person.
At the time, Chief Justice Brian Dickson wrote that “forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman’s body and thus a violation of the security of the person.”
For a primer on human rights laws in Canada, check out How your rights are protected on the Government of Canada website.
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