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Canadian government urged to fast-track promise to tackle anti-abortionists

Trudeau’s party is accused of going silent on vow to strip charity status from groups that ‘deceive’ pregnant people

Annie Burns-Pieper headshot.jpg
Annie Burns-Pieper
2 August 2022, 8.30am

Pro-choice rally in Ottawa, Canada, 2019


The Canadian Press / Alamy Stock Photo

The Canadian government has been urged to finally fulfill its promise of ending charitable status for anti-abortion organisations accused of decieving pregnant people by masquerading as ‘health centres’.

During its 2021 election campaign, the Liberal Party vowed to target groups “that provide dishonest counselling to women about their rights and about the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy”. 

But ten months on, the government has reportedly gone quiet on its promise – which campaigners say is more important than ever.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), said: “Given the reversal of Roe vs Wade, it’s critical the Canadian government fulfills their promise to disallow charitable status for anti-abortion groups as soon as possible.

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“There appears to be little movement on the issue now and the government has been unresponsive to our multiple queries. We’ve heard nothing since March.”

It remains unclear which groups could lose charitable status, which provides an organisation with credibility and exempts it from paying income tax. It is also not known what the timeline for implementation would be. 

In their campaign, the Liberals named crisis pregnancy centres – organisations that counsel pregnant women against having an abortion – as one of the targets of the proposed law change. 

There are 148 such centres in the country, according to the ARCC, of which more than 90% have charitable status. 

In 2019, Global News reported the experience of Raquel, who visited a crisis pregnancy centre because its website said it provided “abortion support”. There, she said she was made to feel guilty for wanting to end her pregnancy – with one staff member reportedly pushing adoption and suggesting Raquel listen to the foetal heartbeat.

Jill Doctoroff, executive director at National Abortion Federation Canada, told openDemocracy that the crisis pregnancy centres have “co-opted pro-choice language, making it difficult for a potential user to identify whether they will be getting accurate information related to abortion care”.

She continued: “It’s important that anti-choice groups that aren’t explicit about the information they provide not have the legitimacy of being a registered charity.”

Arthur agreed, accusing crisis pregnancy centres of engaging “in misinformation and deception”. 

She said the centres are increasingly trying to market themselves as non-religious health-focused services, adding: “They don't provide healthcare and, if anything, they kind of distort the whole meaning of ‘health’ in terms of trying to prevent people from accessing a healthcare service”.

Other organisations working in the field have also claimed crisis pregnancy centres deceive people. Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, previously Planned Parenthood Canada described the centres as “anti-abortion organisations disguised as clinics”. The group says there are more crisis pregnancy centres in Canada than abortion providers. 

Six Conservative MPs, meanwhile, have presented petitions to the House of Commons claiming the proposed policy will be a step towards the eradication of Christian values. They are calling on MPs to prevent any changes to the charitable status of pro-life organisations. 

Responding to these petitions in May, the government said: “Registered charities that provide reproductive health services are required to provide accurate and evidence-based information to women with respect to their rights and options at all stages of their pregnancy.” 

But some campaigners feel the government is not moving quickly enough. Frédérique Chabot, the director of health promotion at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, told openDemocracy that she fears the US’s anti-abortion movement could target Canada.

“The movement working toward restricting or banning abortion is transnational in nature and the financing of their activities crosses borders,” she said.

“The overturning of Roe vs Wade was unthinkable a short time ago, it took the alignment of the right circumstances for it to motion forward and so, we believe that it is important for people in Canada to be vigilant when it comes to anti-choice activities.” 

Chabot added: “Just last year, over a quarter of elected officials at the Federal level voted to support a private members' bill to restrict abortion access in Canada despite low public support.” 

* This is a co-published piece with The Tyee – a reader-funded, non-profit, award-winning site for news, culture and solutions based in British Columbia.

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