We Tolerate Public Bullying of Women

Wednesday, July 28 2010

By Ginette Petitpas-Taylor

Bullying at school or in the workplace is finally getting some attention. I've been thinking there are other places where bullying is tolerated and should not be.

On most Tuesday mornings, in front of the abortion clinic in Fredericton, women who want to go into the clinic must first go through a gauntlet of protesters, many of them large men, brandishing signs with bloody photos, urging them to repent and reconsider.

Some of us have taken this behaviour for granted. It's what happens. But it is bullying. Dangerous and potentially traumatizing bullying that we should not accept, if only out of concern for public safety - if only so we, let alone children, don't take for granted that bullying is ok.

I saw this through new eyes recently. I was told about comments, made by some female university students who are in New Brunswick to study, when they learned about the many layers of obstacles placed in front of New Brunswick women wanting access to abortion - from the government's requirement of two doctors' signatures for publicly funded abortions to the gauntlet of protesters at the private clinic that ends up performing most abortions.

Let's just say the students were not impressed with the province and could not imagine staying longer than they had to in a community so intent on controlling women.

The protesters are bussed in every week, not to lobby government, not to express an opinion or raise public awareness about their cause, not to try to reduce abortion by the only way that has been shown to work - through contraception use.

They are there to intimidate women who have made a decision that the Supreme Court of Canada has said is theirs to make.

Imagine if those who did not agree with cosmetic surgery stalked the offices of plastic surgeons, if those who did not agree with insulin use or blood transfusion confronted patients at the hospital door or if those who think contraception is wrong picketed pharmacies.

Those female students saw it and said it: as a community, we are not shy about pushing women to make certain decisions and not others, when it comes to reproductive issues.

A New Brunswick woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy, for whatever reason, must meet a long list of requirements - quickly - to possibly qualify for a publicly funded abortion. Even if she qualifies and is approved, the abortion may very well not be available to her. Many women cannot even get the process started because they don't have a family physician or their physician does not agree with the Supreme Court, that it is her decision to make.

Some women end up having an unwanted child, and if a woman does get an abortion in New Brunswick, it's usually at a private clinic, at their expense.

As a New Brunswick law professor told a packed auditorium earlier this year, imagine a doctor who tells a diabetic patient that they should not take insulin because that shows a lack of trust in God - the doctor would find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit before the day is out. In fact, some girls and women in New Brunswick get pregnant because their doctors refuse to prescribe birth control, or pharmacists refuse to sell it. Nobody is suing, and the provincial government is silent.

As a nursing professor told the same crowd, it is agreed that about 15% of women who have an abortion will experience significant psychological complications. The rate is much less if you remove those with a history of abuse. The abortion procedure itself is rarely experienced as traumatic, but the more a woman feels socially judged, the more it is experienced as traumatic over time. The more times a woman must tell her story and justify that she is deserving, the more she feels judged.

And then when she must "pass through sensationalizing protesters presenting inaccurate judging information on placards", a public harassment evidently found tolerable by governments and public safety officials, she gets the message that she is judged and condemned in New Brunswick.

Is that the best we can do?

UNB Nursing Professor Marilyn Merritt-Gray has said, "When people given social status within our communities - politicians, health professionals, academics and justice personnel - are silent or challenge women's right to access abortion, women can feel morally judged. Women feel judged when her friends condemn other women who have had an abortion. Women often say they don't feel it is safe to be honest and tell a health professional that they have had an abortion in the past, thus their health care in general can be significantly compromised."

And what of the health professionals who are trying to do their job. Anti-choice demonstrators have also harassed New Brunswick physicians providing the service.

In several jurisdictions in North America, including some who experienced escalating intimidation, attacks and even murders of abortion providers, they adopted access zone legislation and injunctions to protect patients and service providers at work and at home. This establishes an area around buildings or people within which protesters are prohibited from engaging in certain kinds of activity. Many American states have passed access laws making it a crime to obstruct access to clinics.

Giving women dignified and real access to a procedure that is legal is the least we can do. Providing counseling, contraception and sexual health services would be the wise thing we could do. Bullying them is about the worst we can do.

Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, of Moncton, is Chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She may be reached via e-mail at acswcccf@gnb.ca

New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women
506 444-4101; 1-800-332-3087; fax 506 444-4318
236 King St. Fredericton, N.B. E3B 1E2
rosella.melanson@gnb.ca ; www.acswcccf.nb.ca

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