This past Wednesday, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights signalled that it will for the first time question Canada on the availability and accessibility of abortion and sexuality education in the country.
The UN body of 18 independent experts monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Its decision follows Action Canada’s submission and presentation before the Committee of a report on ongoing barriers to sexual and reproductive health and rights in advance of the Committee’s upcoming review of Canada’s human rights performance.
Action Canada’s submission focused specifically on Canada’s violations of Articles 12 and 13 of the Covenant, namely the right to health and the right to education, respectively. Specific issues raised in Action Canada’s report include Canada’s obligation to provide young people with access to comprehensive and evidence-based sexuality education, to address the denial of sexual and reproductive health care on moral or religious grounds, and to ensure individuals’ right to access safe abortion services without discrimination. The report lays out clear evidence demonstrating the Government of Canada’s failure to take measures to address barriers, including discriminatory policies, despite having the responsibility and authority to do so.
Subsequent to Action Canada’s submission and presentation, the Committee is asking the Government of Canada to provide information on the legal framework regulating abortion and discrepancies in access to legal abortion services and expenses coverage. The Committee is also asking the Government of Canada to indicate if sexual and reproductive health information and services – including age-appropriate sexual education – are available and accessible to all in Canada.
The review is timely given the new policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario on conscientious objection. The policy requires physicians to at least provide medical referrals for services, an important step toward the elimination of a significant barrier to abortion in one Canadian province. Despite this progress in Ontario, the situation in many other provinces and territories is consistent with the older Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). This requires physicians to inform patients when personal values would influence the recommendation or practice of any medical procedure that the patient needs or wants, but does not require physicians to provide timely referrals. This is especially problematic given how time-sensitive and inaccessible the abortion procedure can be. Only 16% of hospitals offer abortion services in Canada, the majority of which are located in urban areas and within 150 kilometres of the US border. The scrutiny of this UN body and Ontario’s new policy are only a few examples of a rising movement that is demanding the Government of Canada guarantee the availability and accessibility of quality sexual and reproductive health care, in line with its international human rights obligations.
Engaging with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is one of the many ways in which Action Canada is using the international human rights framework to hold the Government of Canada accountable in ensuring that everyone in Canada has access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services and information they are entitled to as part of their human rights.
Click here to read Action Canada’s report