When Rabia Nassar* was 17 years old, she took a five-pound dumbbell from her parents’ gym in the basement and proceeded to drop it on her stomach, over and over.
Unsure where it would be most effective at ending her pregnancy, she dropped it under her ribcage. She ended up with bruises all over her hip bones and lower stomach, and the inability to eat for days at a time. She remained pregnant.
The now-24-year-old Nassar then turned to a guidance counsellor at school. “I didn’t have any adults in my life that I felt I could talk to,” she recalls. “I figured that if I spoke with her, and she didn’t want to help me, it wouldn’t be a loss.”
To Nassar’s surprise, her counsellor had been through this many times, and knew about free clinics and post-abortion care resources. “She never once mentioned what her beliefs on abortion were. She only ever told me that I had the right to choose how to live my life, and whatever I chose, she would support me throughout it."
But Nassar’s access issues didn’t stop there. In her hometown of Mississauga, Ontario, the only abortion clinic she found was one that required parental consent—so she had to travel to downtown Toronto, which cost her $50.
When she got to the clinic, she had to pay a $100 administrative fee to the clinic. “I know $100 is not a lot but for a 16-, 17-year-old kid, it’s just a lot of money that they don’t usually have.” She knows that many kids at her school would not have been able to afford all those costs.
Nassar couldn’t turn to her parents to help her. In traditional Muslim households like Nassar’s, it’s common to keep dating a secret from your parents. So when she got pregnant after her first time having sex, just shy of her 18th birthday, she knew she couldn’t tell her parents—two Saudi Arabian immigrants, both conservative-minded Muslims.
Reproductive rights issues can be worse for immigrants and people of colour
Abortion in Canada, while legal, still carries a heavy stigma. Canada’s anti-abortion movement is notably growing (and on top of that, those involved in it are getting younger). But if you’re the kid of conservative immigrants, like Nassar, your experience with abortion might come with a different kind of trauma.
In the United States, where state lawmakers have passed increasingly extreme abortion restrictions, the push towards banning abortion has been rampant, and while the target has been cisgender women generally, the bans affects women of colour the most. According to data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, 6,959 people got abortions in Alabama in 2016, 65 percent of whom were women of colour—even though just 32 percent of women in the state are not white. The state recently passed leglislation banning abortions in nearly every context, though the law is being challenged in court and isn't in effect. In 2006, Black women in America were nearly five times more likely than white women to have an abortion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For Hispanic women, a report by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization focused on reproductive rights, found the rate of abortion was double that of white people. The rate for unintended pregnancies is also higher amongst Black and Hispanic women. There's no data available on abortions among Americans of Middle Eastern descent. Canada has no comparable race-based data available.
Frederique Chabot, health promotion director at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, helps run the organization’s 24-hour access line. In her work, Chabot encounters many young people wrestling with the shame associated with abortion—particularly, that which comes from their families.
“It speaks to the tension young people have, the values that their parents have...and the way they shame and fear people who get pregnant,” Chabot said. “[Young people] can’t even fathom what it means if they go through with it, in terms of disconnection with their families, disconnection from their values.”
In a piece from gal-dem, a magazine that focuses on women and non-binary people of colour’s experiences, an anonymous writer discusses their experience with abortion in relation to their family: “As I got to my later teens, my mum and grandmother would tell me: ‘Never do anything that would make us walk with our head down.’ I knew what they meant—don’t have sex until you’re married, or you’re a disgrace to us.”
While racial, religious and socioeconomic factors can play a role in abortion experiences, many anti-abortion organizations try to spin this in order to attribute it to racism in the pro-choice community. Anti-choice groups like Abort73.com, Real Women of Canada, Right to Life of Michigan and the Centre for Urban Renewal and Education argue that abortion is a form of eugenics that aims to lower the birth rate of babies of colour.
Parental shame impacts the post-abortion experience
Nassar eventually decided to tell her mom she had an abortion, but before she could, her mom found discharge papers in the car. Since then, her mom has blamed every health issue that Nassar experiences on her abortion. Now, Nassar doesn’t share health issues with her mom. It’s just the elephant in the room. “It’s fine now. But I don't think I could ever talk to them about my reproductive rights, just because we're on such different pages.”
Whenever Nassar thinks about her counsellor, she thinks of all the cuts to schools that are happening in her province of Ontario and the changes to sex-ed curriculam. “I just wonder how many other kids are not going to be able to get that kind of help which they couldn’t find anywhere else.”
How to talk to your anti-choice parents about reproductive rights
It’s understandable that family members may have objections to abortion, whether cultural or religious. But continuing a pregnancy can have severe implications for an individual. It could be threatening their education, a threatening relationship, or in one that they don’t wish to continue, Chabot points out.
Chabot called it “extreme anguish” from young people trying to confront anti-choice statements. She recommends beginning a conversation around reproductive rights without attacking the person or their beliefs.
If you want to talk about reproductive rights with someone who is anti-choice, Chabot said, particularly a loved one, try to examine the reaction around the discussion as well. Is it about harmony with other family members? A sense of belonging? Not wanting to be the one who stands out?
Sometimes, ruining the family dinner with politics talk isn’t obnoxious—it’s for our health, our safety and our right to choose.
*Name changed to protect identity