You know an issue's contentious if a link on the Guelph sub-Reddit gets nearly 40 replies. Now don't get me wrong, I love the Guelph Reddit, but it ain't exactly the most happening place on the interwebs. In this case, the topic in question is part of a bigger conversation that has even made it to the local TV news, a question as to whether or not Guelph Right for Life should be allowed to advertise on city buses.
Given the fact that I've been in Guelph for almost 18 years, and cannot remember a time when the picture of a fetus and the phrase "This is a child. Not a choice." didn't occasionally pop up on the back of a bus, I have to wonder what the urgent urgency of getting rid of them now is. Also, I have to wonder why Guelphites advocating for a woman's right to choose keep missing the point? They're so wrapped up in the messaging that they seem to have forgotten that unless its an emergency or classified as live-saving surgery, your average woman can't get a legal abortion inside the boundaries of the Royal City.
This stunningly under-reported factoid made a headline back in the summer of 2007.
If a pregnant woman in Guelph wants to have an abortion in the city, she'll be hard-pressed to find a doctor who'll perform such a service. According to one obstetrician who works out of Guelph General Hospital, there aren't any city doctors who will currently abort a fetus. Dr. Nabil Namis, who's been practising in the Royal City for 19 years, said he was one of three or four doctors performing this procedure a few years ago.
"We don't deny anybody a right to a safe abortion, but unfortunately nobody in town offers this service," Namis told the Guelph Mercury reporter. If a woman does decide to have an abortion, at the time, she was then referred to facilities in either Kitchener or Toronto. A quick Google search does indeed refer women to a list of abortion clinics in the immediate area including locations in Kitchener, Brampton and Toronto, but there's nothing in Guelph and nothing that doesn't require a woman without a car to avoid buying a GO or Greyhound ticket.
Nationally, there's a list of 18 abortion clinics on the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada's website. "This is a complete list of clinics across Canada, including hospitals with a dedicated abortion clinic or women’s health clinic," the page says as the top. "Otherwise, hospitals are not listed unless they are the only facility providing abortions in that province or territory."
Of the 18, two-thirds are based in Ontario, including the Freeport Health Centre at the Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. "The Freeport Site is the main location for a range of Grand River Hospital programs and services," says the website. "These include complex continuing care and rehabilitation, the Waterloo Wellington Breast Centre, specialized mental health, a satellite renal dialysis centre and a range of outpatient clinics." The webpage doesn't explicitly mention abortion services, and from what I understand, one must still be referred to Freeport by their family physician; no walk-ins. Interestingly, there is a Waterloo Region office of Planned Parenthood based in Kitchener, but they do not offer any abortion services of their own, just counselling.
In this light, one might start to appreciate this debate is far bigger than what's on the back of a bus. It might even seem odd that while we we're all fighting about whether or not such an incendiary ad should be allowed, Guelph Right to Life has effectively won their cause since the choice in Guelph is as much a matter of geography as it is biology.
In fact, looking back to 2007, it seems as if that victory was long ago assured for Guelph pro-lifers, as the man at the head of Guelph General refused to talk about who at the hospital could perform an abortion. "It's just a sensitive issue," said Richard Ernst, who's still the president and CEO of the Guelph General Hospital. "We feel the most responsible thing is to be silent about it." He also refused to answer a question about where woman can go for assistance. "We prefer not to talk about it," he added.
In the end, the bus thing is a free speech issue. I've said before in the case of Right to Life buying ad space, I'm just grateful that SOMEONE is buying ad space on Guelph Transit's buses and shelters, there's far too much vacancy on that account, and most of the ads that are there don't get a lot of turnover. (I wasn't going to buy that Nickelback album when it come out three years ago, I'm not going to buy it now.) Are these issues separate? Possibly, but to me, the best definition of the meaning free speech comes from the Rob Reiner-directed, Aaron Sorkin-written movie The American President:
"You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
A letter writer to the Guelph Tribune made a good point. "Instead of getting signatures to try and have the city deny the controversial signs, get those same people to donate money to post competing advertisements," Julian Murphy wrote. "Put the money to good use, hire a marketing agency to design an ad that says something along the lines of 'It is your choice and it is not a shameful one.'"
Of course the real shame is that the Guelph's healthcare community seems unwilling, or too frightened, to openly provide abortion services for local women in need. So let the debate start there. Supporting a choice is fine, but you can't choose something if you don't have the option; you can't walk into a vegan restaurant and ask for a hamburger, to put it another way. Guelph's pro-choice community needs to be a little less worried about the pro-lifers communications strategy, and a little more concerned that there's actually no choice in our city to begin with.