Photos by Tania Heath

Reproductive rights protesters heavily outnumbered anti-abortion activists at this year’s annual March for Life rally and counter-rally in St. John’s Sunday. But advocates say that’s no reason to become complacent about access to abortion and other reproductive rights.

Shortly after the half a dozen or so anti-choice activists arrived at Confederation Building, they attempted to parade up and down Prince Philip Drive carrying large, graphic signs. But they were quickly surrounded by pro-choice protesters, who stood between them and the passing cars, carrying their own signs supporting reproductive rights. Drivers honked in support of the loud display of pro-choice activism.

Photo by Tania Heath.

March for Life was created by American anti-choice activists in response to the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that decriminalized abortion in the United States. In 1998 the event was brought to Canada, where it is held in May to mark the anniversary of a 1969 law that decriminalized contraception in this country.

Canada’s importation of the American event also brought the counter-protests from reproductive justice activists. But much has changed since the first counter-rallies of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

From Reproductive Justice to Bodily Autonomy

The struggle that first centred around access to abortion has morphed into a much broader defense of reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. It’s a fight that carries special weight at a political moment when right-wing American politicians are targeting not only reproductive rights but also gender-affirming care, LGBTQ rights writ large, and even basic sexual health education

In Canada, some conservative politicians–notably Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party under Premier Danielle Smith–have celebrated US Republican attacks on civil rights long taken for granted in both countries.

Photo by Tania Heath.

“When we say we’re pro-choice and we’re for bodily autonomy, we don’t just mean for abortion,” Planned Parenthood NL Executive Director Nikki Baldwin told The Independent. “We mean it’s your body, and everything you do with it is your choice.” Baldwin said government “shouldn’t be involved in what I do with my own body if it’s not harming someone else,” and that “it’s more important than ever to be on our toes about it.

“It’s important to be really loud about how much we need our rights to our bodies, to bodily autonomy, because that seems to be getting stripped away really quickly around us in different provinces and especially in the States,” they said. 

Trans Rights are Reproductive Rights

Like elsewhere in Canada, Planned Parenthood in Newfoundland and Labrador has wound up filling a gap in LGBTQ health care, including gender-affirming care for trans people. The poor state of gender-affirming health care in this province also motivated participants at Sunday’s rally.

“When you’re talking about comprehensive sexual health education, you’re not just talking about teaching about [sexually transmitted infections] and birth control,” said Baldwin. “You’re also talking about teaching kids about relationships and gender and sexuality, and so I think it all just fits really well together.”

Several pro-choice protesters proudly displayed the trans flag on their signs, signaling the movement’s expansion to bodily autonomy rights. 

“I’m here to definitely support abortion rights,” said 24-year old Kaiden Dalley, who held up a large trans flag hand-painted with slogans. “It’s important to me on a global scale but also specifically as a trans person. There’s a lack of knowledge and awareness around the reproductive health needs of trans people right now.”

Dalley said many don’t realize that trans masculine nonbinary folks need access to abortion, too. “Pregnancy isn’t just a woman’s issue,” they said. “So I wanted to really represent that and make it apparent that the issue is bigger than what you stereotypically think.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

Linda Cohen, a Memorial University sociology professor, said she joined the counter-rally to protect her family members’ rights. “I’ve always been pro-choice and I have two adult daughters who I want to make sure have opportunities to make their own decisions about their body,” she said. “With what’s going on in the States, I’m worried that it’s going to seep up into Canada.”

The event also brought out young people born decades after Roe v Wade.

“My mom raised me right and I’ve gone to one pro-choice rally before at Planned Parenthood so when I heard that there was another one, I was like yeah, of course!” said 14-year-old Emery Squires, who attended with two of her friends.

“I’m here because they’re trying to get rid of abortion–that’s unfair to many people,” said 12-year-old Skylar Kennedy-Bishop. “Not having access to abortion could result in people dying–it’s terrible.”

Kennedy-Bishop’s 14-year-old brother Lance agreed. “I strongly believe in bodily autonomy and that women and anyone can and should have the access that allows them to make choices about their life and their bodies,” he said.  

An Intersectional Struggle

The broader fight for bodily autonomy was reflected in the range of organizations that took part in the rally, which featured speakers from End Sexual Violence NL (formerly the Sexual Violence Crisis and Prevention Centre) and the Journey Project, both of which support victims of sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, members of the province’s Migrant Action Centre carried placards that read “Migrant Rights = Reproductive Rights” and “Justice for All Means Reproductive Justice Too.”

“There cannot be migrant justice unless there is reproductive justice,” said Adi Khaitan, an organizer with the Migrant Action Centre. “We often hear from migrant workers about barriers being put up against access to health care, access to abortion, but also access in general to reproductive health care. Those barriers add to the precarity of migrant lives.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

Khaitan said the fight for reproductive health care is part of the broader struggle for equal access to health care for migrant workers. “There are a significant amount of migrants who are ineligible for MCP and ineligible for access to health care. There needs to be health care for all, irrespective of their immigration status or the lack thereof. The policy of exclusion from MCP is inhumane.”

Sex work advocates also supported the counter-rally and stressed the link between sex workers’ rights and reproductive rights. “They both have everything to do with bodily autonomy,” said Heather Austin, outreach and advocacy director with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project. “Any laws that criminalize sex work and abortion are more about controlling bodies and sexuality than helping anyone. 

“The ironic thing is that the laws are put in place claiming to help people and protect the innocent. But in fact they just rob people of the right to choose what they feel is right for their own bodies and lives.” 

Safe Harbour Outreach Project Program Coordinator Susan Smith said there are important correlations between the lack of access to reproductive health care in the province’s rural communities, and lack of supports for rural sex workers. She says with the rapid repeal of civil rights to bodily autonomy in Republican-controlled parts of the United States, there’s growing concern in Canada that human rights in here could be affected as well.

“It’s so close and it just feels imminent that those laws can creep in here and affect us,” she said. “Allowing state control over our bodies, over sex worker bodies, over the bodies of people who are pregnant, is just unethical.”

Access the Biggest Issue in Newfoundland and Labrador

The reproductive justice rally was organized by Planned Parenthood Newfoundland and Labrador (PPNL), which serves as the province’s sexual health centre. The group organizes the March for Life counter-rallies to rebut the sometimes dangerous misinformation spread by anti-choice activists, Baldwin explained.

Recently, that misinformation has included promotion by anti-choice activists of an ‘Abortion Pill Reversal Hotline’. That campaign is based on the theory that a dose of the hormone progesterone can be used to reverse the effects of a medical (pill-based) abortion, something that leading medical organizations have spoken out against

In 2021 the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC) said their organization “does not support prescribing progesterone to stop a medical abortion,” and that the “claims regarding so-called abortion ‘reversal’ treatments are not based on scientific evidence. Not only are the treatments unproven, they can also result in serious complications for the patient.”  

In Canada, unlike our neighbours to the south, abortion access is considered health care and is legally protected. But failing to ensure accessibility offers a backdoor route to restricting reproductive rights, Baldwin warned. They said the New Brunswick government has “aggressively” reduced access by refusing to fund abortions outside of hospitals, which led to the closure of that province’s primary sexual health clinic. 

Photo by Tania Heath.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s sprawling rural population makes access problems just as dire here, Baldwin said. In 2018 the provincial government began covering abortion pills under MCP, which helped increase access in rural areas. “But it’s not as easy of a solution as it seems, to take a pill and have an abortion. There’s follow-ups, and it can be difficult if you live somewhere where there isn’t a hospital nearby or there isn’t a place to get bloodwork nearby,” Baldwin explained.

The fact that MCP is the payer of last resort for abortion care has also created “serious privacy issues” where the primary holders of a medical plan have been notified when users on their plan, like children or partners, access medical abortions, Baldwin added.

Gender affirming care for trans people in Newfoundland and Labrador is equally fraught. Much basic trans health care, such as prescribing and monitoring hormones, is very simple and does not require a specialist. Yet many doctors in this province incorrectly think it requires special expertise and are unwilling to do it. This increases the burden on the small number of specialist care providers in the province.

“We would very much love a transgender health centre for excellence here — like the collaborative health clinics, but for trans health care,” said Baldwin.

Hate on the Rise

Watching the wave of anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ laws in some American states worries those who say it’s already affecting Canada’s political climate.

“There are two distinct types of anti-choice people,” says Baldwin. “There are people who are genuinely interested in helping families and helping people live their best lives, and they truly do believe that abortion is murder but they’re not hateful. They’re searching for a way to help and are just going about it the wrong way. And then there are people who just like to hate people. And those people are the same people who tend to be homophobic and transphobic and classist and racist and every other thing. It just seems like they want to hate people, and want to keep others down.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

Baldwin warns Canadians shouldn’t be complacent about threats to their rights posed by an American-influenced right-wing that is mobilized against reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, bodily autonomy, and equality for women and other marginalized groups.

“I think people in Canada should definitely be keeping an eye on all of this,” they said. “We see it coming up in policies now as different challenges to the law, and it’s pretty scary. I’d like to be optimistic and say that Canada is Canada, but the sentiments are definitely rising and I think that we can’t just take for granted these rights.”

Dalley, too, is worried. “In my personal life I’ve seen [hate] more and more every day and it’s getting scary. To think that there’s even this window for these people to spread this misinformation and this hate–it’s terrifying and we need to stand up and do something about it.”

Photo by Tania Heath.

About the Photographer: Tania Heath (she/they) is a queer settler residing in St. John’s, NL with their partner and two cats. She is currently the Training Innovator at the St. John’s Status of Women Council where she finds great satisfaction in challenging the patriarchy. They are also a freelance photographer, with the goal of creating safer, inclusive, and accessible photoshoot experiences and she’s always up for capturing the energy of a good ol’ social justice rally. You can follow Tania’s work at

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