It was only just over 100 years ago (1892) that the sale or advertisement of contraception in Canada was outlawed.
Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw was one of Canada's first female doctors, and believed that all women have the right to prevent pregnancy. She established the first family planning clinic in 1932, even though it was illegal at the time. Momentum built through the pressure of Planned Parenthood, Canadian doctors, church leaders, and other Canadian citizens (such as industrialist Alvin Ratz Kaufman).
Thirty-seven years later, contraception was decriminalized.
In 1972, Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw was made a member of the Order of Canada (the highest honour of merit you can get in Canada without going straight to the Queen).
These days, thanks to a public health care system, any woman can access birth control pills through a prescription from their nurse or doctor. The cost is low ($25-$30/month), and many corporate insurance plans will cover the majority, if not all, of that cost. In 1998, 86 per cent of Canadian women had used a contraceptive pill at some point in their lives.
This history informs how we view contraception in Canada. We teach safe sex in our high schools. We have countless free and confidential clinics in our universities and community centres (which often provide free condoms and other contraceptive devices). We glorify those individuals who have fought for women's reproductive rights, such as Dr. Bagshaw or Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Birth control is a public health issue in Canada, and while not everybody agrees on the issue in this country, our priority is on health care above all else.
Across the pond, Americans are engaged in a deep and polarizing ideological debate. Birth control, contraception, and abortion are framed in religious or political terms. Health care is seen as a hot button issue. Rush Limbaugh, host of the highest-rated talk-radio program in the U.S., considers women who use contraception to be "sluts," particularly if they want the government to pay for contraception. The concept that insurers cannot opt out of providing health care in cases where they find it to be "morally objectionable" is hotly contested at the highest level of government.
I have friends living in New York, Chicago, South Carolina, and New Orleans. My sister is in San Francisco, and my family is from all over California. Their health and basic reproductive freedoms are in the hands of legislators and pundits, many of whom are debating whether they should even have access to either.
It's tough to compare these two scenarios. I take it for granted that my friend/girlfriend/sister/colleague can access health care or contraception whenever they need it. I know that if she chooses to do so, a woman in Canada has the freedom to get an abortion. Pierre Trudeau, arguably our most celebrated Prime Minister, famously stated that "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." We govern accordingly, protecting the privacy and rights of all of our citizens.
As I watch and read the heated rhetoric right now in the U.S., it makes me realize that this debate will never go anywhere while it is framed ideologically. Access to birth control and contraception is about public health, and public health policy is only effective when we have the freedom and knowledge to make healthy choices, and affordable access to medication and health care.
I can't wait for the day when all American citizens will be able to take that access and freedom for granted, as I do here in Canada.
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