When Darrah Teitel arrived for her first year at the University of Toronto, she was shocked to see anti-choice activists posting grisly photos comparing abortions to the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide. As she witnessed the rise of anti-choice groups on university campuses, she began organizing young feminists to write op-eds and conduct creative actions to defend abortion rights.
Then came the Harper years, when the Conservative government cut funding to sexual rights programs internationally and allowed an MP to put a private member’s bill to vote that would have banned “coerced abortion.”
“Abortion remained legal here,” she recalls, “but as a country we were preventing women from all over the planet from receiving contraception, abortion, and accessing any kind of sexual rights.”
On the heels of her campus activism, she campaigned on reproductive rights as a party staffer on Parliament Hill. Afterward, she spent five years organizing with the Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, which formed out of a merger of several leading feminist organizations.
Because the Harper government stripped feminist NGOs of federal funding, Action Canada had uncharacteristic independence during her tenure. “Funding was mostly from Germany and Denmark, where they considered Canada to be an object of pity,” she says.
During her time at Action Canada from 2016 to 2021, she lead a successful campaign to push provinces to cover the cost of abortion pills.
Teitel now works as an organizer with Amalgamated Transit Union, but took time off on Thursday morning to speak to The Breach, in the wake of the leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade case that provided federal constitutional protection of abortion rights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Justin Trudeau recently said that “every woman in Canada has a right to safe and legal abortion.” What’s your assessment of how we’re doing on that front?
He’s correct, we have a right. We have an inherent human right to safe and legal abortion. The question is whether we can access that right.
One of the broadest misunderstandings of rights is the idea that once they’re legislated, people have them. But in fact, governments have a proactive obligation to ensure those rights. For 30 years since the Morgentaler decision was passed down, Canada has been falling down on ensuring women—and pregnant people—have access to their legal rights.
Canada is a vast country, with extremely few abortion providers that are located within cities for the most part, and certainly not every city. Crisis pregnancy centers—which are these abhorrent fake abortion clinics that basically lure pregnant people and give them terrifyingly false information to try to prevent them from having abortions—outnumber actual abortion clinics by a lot. It’s almost double, if not triple.
In some cities you have something like seven crisis pregnancy centers, and one beleaguered abortion clinic where you’ll have maybe one provider who’s working part time, maybe two doctors who are working part time. It’s a mess. And often this will be in a province that only legally provides abortions up to a certain week limit—around 21 to 23 weeks. This lack of access leads to huge inequities in terms of who can access abortion and who can’t—with poorer, Indigenous and racialized people having the most difficulty.
I can sketch some of the history. In 1969, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with the full support of the bishops of Canada, decided to enact therapeutic abortion committees, which were basically panels of three doctors who would decide whether the health and life of a woman was at risk before allowing her to receive an safe and legal abortion in a hospital. This was actually a new obstacle because previously, a lot of provincial legislation said that if a woman got just a single signature from any doctor, the decision could be made between her and her doctor.
There are problems with therapeutic abortion in general because it doesn’t support choice, it only supports this idea that women needed to save their life or health. Until the Morgentaler decision in 1988, women were coming before these panels of three patronizing doctors and basically saying, “my life is at risk because I’m going to kill myself.” That’s basically what you had to do to get an abortion.
There were some women at the time who were resourced enough to know where you could find a pro choice doctor, or a pro choice hospital, who could help you get what you needed.
Canada fell behind when it came to the the approval of medical abortion. We just got the medical abortion pill legalized and approved in Canada in 2017, even though it had been used safely in countries around the world for 30 years.
We had it approved, but then it was a pill that cost $400, right? So again, it was only for people with money and resources. One of the things I did while I worked at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights was to run a campaign to have the cost of the abortion pill taken on by provincial health care. That was a really successful campaign. I think over the course of three years, we managed one by one to make every province cover the abortion pill.
But then you need to encourage family doctors in these rural places, who often have their own anti-choice ideas, to become prescribers of that pill. Personally, I envision a world where you can just get these things over the counter. I have no earthly idea why a pharmacist can’t prescribe or deliver a medical abortion pill.
In real terms, what are the difficulties of getting a pill prescribed or getting a surgical abortion —and what do people do when they come up against those restrictions?
You’re only able to prescribe the pill up to 10 weeks right now in Canada. It is safe to prescribe it later, but Canada put a more conservative restriction on it. So basically, you have the option of medical or surgical abortion until a certain week of gestation. And then after that, you only can have a surgical abortion.
Canada, unlike the United States, has almost no providers who will provide an abortion over the limit—like a later term abortion. At Action Canada, we would routinely send women down to the States in order to get abortions—where in fact, there are more providers and providers who will provide a wider range of services.
So the notion that the U.S. is legally restricted in many ways—which they are—is also balanced by the practical fact that they have more providers, and in some states they have higher term limits for a lot of providers. And so we’ve often when it comes to abortion tourism, we’ve had to send people down to the U.S. on a regular basis.
According to health rights in Canada, if you cannot access a necessary medical service and essential health service in Canada, then your health care coverage should be paying for you to get it somewhere else. Unfortunately, that has not happened for the vast majority who don’t have access to abortions. Again, it comes down to a matter of resources and money.
What would be a typical example of a person from Canada who would have to go to the U.S. to get an abortion? What kind of costs would they be facing?
Potentially huge costs—since abortion is a time-sensitive procedure. If they have to go down to the U.S., it’s probably because they’re past a certain term limit.
We would get calls on a hotline, and it typically would be a person who did not have any resources, and was desperate. They needed us to help them book and find an abortion in Boulder, Colorado, or in New Mexico—two of the places where you can get these procedures within like a day or two.
So the cost of a flight, probably more than $1,000, and then hotel, and then you’re sending some potentially very young or otherwise vulnerable person south of the border alone to get a medical procedure that is going to cause bleeding and cramping. So you want to send them with a support person as well, and that doubles the costs, right?
Often those people have kids at home or have caregiving responsibilities or can’t take time off work. So when you ask me what people require to access abortion, in my experience it has almost nothing to do with law. It has everything to do with things like a living wage, access to childcare, and governments that actually uphold rights and proactively support people in accessing them.
Can you can you give some examples ofthe provinces and the specific limitations that force people from Canada to go south for abortion.
The gestation limit is as low as 12 weeks in a place like Prince Edward Island, and tops out at 24, 25 weeks in Quebec or British Columbia. But even if you want to get an abortion before you’re at the limit, a lot of provinces have three providers, so good luck getting an appointment.
So you have a lot of people travelling to Quebec or Ontario to get abortions, but after 24 weeks you need to go to the US.
And again, that’s just not possible in a lot of cases, so you have people sharing information about how to self-administer abortions. That is, at least, a lot safer than trying to give yourself a uterine hemorrhage with a coat hanger.
The Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould says that the government has witheld transfers from New Brunswick in support of access to abortion. What is the situation in New Brunswick and how do you assess what the government has done there?
So that move was a result of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, along with two or three other organizations, harranguing the federal government for years. New Brunswick is what we call a holdout province. They just choose—in violation of the Canada Health Act and the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions—to not provide funding for the Morgentaler clinic that was there, called Clinic 554, which means the clinic has to charge for abortions.
They were just going along with their anti-choice agenda, and nothing was being done about it. And this is over 30 years of successive Liberal majority governments; nobody took a stick to them. We were like, “you have a stick at your disposal, you have always had this stick at your disposal, you can withhold federal health transfers to this province until they’ve come in line with the Canada Health Act and the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision.”
There’s only one clinic in all of New Brunswick, located in Fredericton, so people had to travel vast distances within the province to access that clinic. And for a huge length of time, you couldn’t get an abortion at all on Prince Edward Island. Now, I think there is one provider in the hospital there, but that that took a huge fight.
All of these brave fights are being conducted by these small underfunded feminist NGOs in order to get even the slightest bit of action. The federal government always had the option of intervening on behalf of women’s rights.
That was the situation with New Brunswick. And we pushed and pushed and pushed, we screamed and screamed and screamed. And eventually, we were heard. And they were like, “okay, what should we do?” We said, “you withhold federal health transfers.”
And then they did. For $100,000.
They withheld a measly $100,000 a few times, which is nothing, and that didn’t sway the province at all. New Brunwick persists in not covering the cost of surgical abortions in that province.
I think the story right now is that the only abortion clinic in New Brunswick announced its closure because it couldn’t survive. They were hemorrhaging money, because women have to pay for their services, but if they can’t afford it, then the clinic doesn’t turn them away. So it wasn’t an economically viable business for them, because it’s functionally a private clinic. [Ed. note: There is a campaign to save the Clinic 554. ]
What has it been like interacting with the current Liberal government?
One thing that happened during the 2020 budget—it was right after my second baby was born, and I was on matnerity leave—is that they got in touch with Action Canada, saying “okay, give us the top six things that we need to do to improve access in Canada.”
We were excited. “Finally, we have access to this government,” we thought. And we told them what to do, but apart from some rhetorical dancing, so little has been done.
We told them to create an access portal to combat both misinformation and to ensure that people had a secure way to find out where providers were in the country. To find accurate health information there about the effectiveness and safety of abortion medication, things like that, to divert people from the anti-choice propaganda that’s out there.
We asked—and this is really crucial for those data nerds among us—for a national sexual health survey, to collect data, like how many people need to travel to access their sexual rights throughout the country. How many people can’t afford their birth control. We actually do have a survey I think from BC that showed that huge numbers of people cannot afford birth control pills. That didn’t happen.
I think all they have done is give a few grants to some sexual rights programs. So they took NGOs—probably Action Canada was the recipient of some of that money—and gave them one or two million dollars to run a program that they already would have been running.
But when it came to the big-stick things that the government could do and invest in, in order to support access, and to encourage more providers and less abortion tourism, none of that has been done.
It’s a pattern, right? Trudeau senior enacted these therapeutic abortion committees that were supposed to be this panacea for sexual rights in Canada, and there was a flurry of pro choice rhetoric. That was really supported by the fact that for years, activists had been drumming up support among the middle class and the working class. There was huge support, and there was a movement that would require action because women were dying.
Before 1969, the leading cause of death for women under the age of 40 was botched self-induced abortions. So Trudeau Sr. did something—and it turned out to be worse than what we had before.
You know, I think his son really learned the lesson: all you really have to do is talk about it and get the media hits, and it completely undercuts all of the radical activism and the movements that are working towards actual transformative change.
The activists in ‘69 weren’t fooled. They said “this is garbage,” and they kept going. But at that point, they had lost their audience. When you have your politicians echoing activist language, it has this massive demobilizing effect on the public at large.
I think that’s exactly what’s happened right now. They had a momentary flashpoint. And now they’re on a grandstanding soapbox again, getting up there and touting their achievements when it comes to abortion access. Meanwhile, very, very little has changed in Canada.
And I think it is safe to say that in spite of horrific and infuriating dystopian legislation that’s getting passed in certain states across America, access is actually better in some ways down south.
We should be terrified by the right—do not let me quell your fears. But there are just more providers in the U.S.
What do the movements look like today? And if somebody was reading this and wanted to get involved, what avenues would you suggest?
There’s a few organizations like Action Canada and Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada—donation-driven NGOs that have sort of carried on since the 60s, as the institutional side of those former movements. But Action Canada is also a registered charity, and that hamstrings them. Donating to them does do things like support that hotline, and support people who are trying to access abortion. And it supports some of the advocacy that has gotten this buddy-buddy relationship with Trudeau, where Liberals ask for talking points that get mouthed by politicians and slipped into documents.
But when it comes to the feminist movements, like the marches with thousands that were happening in the 60s, I do not see that action being taken up. And I think there’s a flashpoint right now in history that is making us look inwardly at our own socialist and solidarity movements and say, “oh, shit, we haven’t been paying attention to this country.” It’s a good thing that people are realizing how tenuous these rights are.
It’s also extremely intersectional—the fight for $15 minimum wage, for fair wages, and for health care and pharmacare. If we’re screaming about those things at the steps of our legislatures and on the streets, then we need to be underlining that sexual rights and abortion are just totally inaccessible to people who don’t have any money, and who are racialized and who are marginalized, or who live in remote and rural places.
You do have small groups—we meet at the church on Bloor Street and 15 people show up and we sit around like the old times, and we talk about how to protect abortion rights in Ontario. Some incredible elders like Carolyn Egan and Judy Rebick are still active, and they’re still working to support abortion rights, but they don’t have like 20,000 young people standing behind them at this point.
There’s obviously a very well funded anti-abortion infrastructure that has an incredible reach across the country. Can you describe a little more about what the state of that is and who’s funding it?
Yeah, they’re funded by the same billionaire, right-wing groups that fund the movements in the U.S. And they have the coffers to overwhelm us—in the courts, and in terms of their lobbying power. That’s one of the major differences I see that’s happened since I began abortion rights activism two decades ago: the omnipresence of the effects of the money that was poured into anti-choice actions in Canada.
So what does that look like? It’s the mushrooming of anti-choice clinics across the country. Some places you have like a seven-to-one ratio of crisis pregnancy centers. I’m in Kelowna right now, I think they have one abortion provider in the hospital, and they have like five or six anti choice clinics here. And that’s progressive British Columbia.
The Trudeau government has the option of just taking away these clinics’ charitable status, which would bar them overnight from receiving donations. Their raison d’etre is to misinform and lead people away from an essential health service—I don’t think anything else like that would be allowed to receive charitable status. And that is how they make a lot of money. In fact it’s probably how they get all of their money.
We could just take that away from them, and the Liberals promised they would—that was one of the talking points we gave them. And then they didn’t. I think they are scared of these incredibly well-funded, never-ending legal battles. In the interim, they could just do it. They could choose to fight this in court—you know, the way they’ve fought Indigenous children’s welfare in court for decades. Anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers would be folding for lack of donations.
Then you also have a powerful anti-choice lobbying machine that is picking off politicians all over the country—specifically at the provincial level, where healthcare is delivered. But the federal government can earmark funding, so if they chose to, they could give millions and millions of dollars to provinces and earmark it to go to sexual health and rights. They haven’t done that. They’ve done it for mental health, they’ve done it for COVID reasons, they could easily choose to do that for sexual health and rights.
The U.S. funders are supporting things like the 40 Days for Life, a movement to harass people outside of abortion clinics for the 40 days of Lent. Some of the organizations they fund rent buses that take poor, misinformed children from Catholic schools around the country to Ottawa in order to stage these like giant marches against abortion on the steps of parliament once a year.
That money is all coming from a coalition of places like the Canadian Center for Bioethical Reform, which is a subsidiary of the Center for Bioethical Reform from the U.S.
Could you describe the broader scope of reproductive justice work. Obviously, abortion access is a crucial part of that, but what is the bigger picture?
It’s socialism. It’s a world where people are supported to have what they need to survive in this world. So they can make active choices to become parents or not to become parents, for reasons that have nothing to do with necessity. And the only way to do that is to ensure the economic and social rights of everybody equally. And then it’s to combat the misogyny and the transphobia and homophobia—sexual rights really need to be taken together.
It’s impossible to separate them out because the forces that are trying to suppress them also understand it’s all connected. That’s what’s so terrifying about the leaked draft of this Supreme Court decision—it does take all of these sexual rights together as a package.
I think it’s really important to remember that sexual rights have never been won through legislation—no benevolent politician has ever bestowed upon us. Our sexual rights have always been won in movements, then certified in the courts. Morgentaler was won in court. Bedford, the sex worker legislation, was won in court.
So what really works hasn’t really changed—it’s about keeping our movements healthy and strong, and taking care of each other.