No Time for Women's Health in an Age of Austerity

Despite surging anti-choice opposition, Planned Parenthood is calling on Congress not to be fooled by recent smear campaigns. (Photo: Women's eNews/flickr/cc)

No Time for Women's Health in an Age of Austerity

The war waged by political reactionaries and pro-life advocates against Planned Parenthood in the United States is widely known. I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, and the undercover videos attempting to show the organization in a bad light are only the latest in a longstanding campaign. Planned Parenthood, which provides health care to millions of American women, has been under threat for years. It has always fought back.

What is less well known is that Canadian sexual health clinics, which offer many of the same vital services as their U.S. counterpart (but not abortions), are under similar threat. Earlier this month a group of Canadian sexual health clinics got together to talk about the increasingly difficult obstacles they face, from cuts in funding to harassment by anti-choice opponents to donors who are suddenly spooked by the Planned Parenthood controversy south of the border.

Many of the clinics in Canada have long since dropped Planned Parenthood from their names, and even the ones that proudly maintain the title aren't officially tied to the outfit in the U.S. But still the stigma remains, and many are struggling. Some have cut services; some have closed, or fear they will have to.

"It's getting quite desperate. We're all feeling the bite," said Lauren Dobson-Hughes, president of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, which recently put out an urgent appeal to its supporters for funds. Planned Parenthood Ottawa, which provided counselling and sex education to 8,500 clients last year (not to mention distributing 72,000 free condoms) has seen its government support slashed by 10 per cent in each of the past few years. The United Way in Ottawa cut all its funding a few years ago. Other grant applications have gone unanswered, and donors are spooked by the very words "sexual health."

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According to Planned Parenthood Ottawa, there has been a concerted effort by anti-choice advocates to badger agencies and donors that might otherwise provide financial support to clinics (even though they don't provide abortion services.) As well, there is just a general leeriness around the subject of sex education - witness the vehement opposition to Ontario's new curriculum. Donors are risk averse in tough times. "For some donors, it's just easier to support something like a cancer charity," said Ms. Dobson-Hughes.

The result of dwindling funding is that the people at greatest risk suffer. One client, a pregnant sexual assault survivor in an abusive relationship, recently had to be turned away from the Ottawa clinic because there were no counsellors to see her.

This squeamishness may seem difficult to believe in 2015, but other sexual-health providers - the ones who give out free condoms, and counsel nervous teens and pregnant women, and offer screening tests for people who might not have a doctor - confirm that it's a dire time. In April, Health Initiatives for Youth Hamilton, the country's oldest birth-control clinic, had to shut its doors after it lost its local government funding. It had been running for 85 years.

In March of last year, it looked like the doors of Victoria's Island Sexual Health Society would also shut when it faced a funding crisis. After a public appeal, it received a small boost from the province's health coffers. "The immediate threat is over, but we had to lay off staff and it's still a struggle," said Bobbi Turner, who's been the director of Island Sexual Health for 21 years.

Ms. Turner's clinic had 27,000 patient visits last year, and provided sexual education for thousands of students. Like similar outfits, it offers education and pregnancy counselling and clinical services like STI testing and cancer screening. One of the problems in Victoria, she said, is the lack of family doctors: "If we close, where are these people supposed to go?"

Now the clinic is exploring "different revenue streams," including selling a line of sex toys. It's not exactly a viable alternative to stable, year-on-year funding, but desperate times calls for innovative measures.

In a tight-fisted world, it seems that women's health services - even with their long-term, quantifiable benefits - are the first and easiest things to cut. "Funding dollars are getting smaller and smaller," Ms. Turner said. "It's the same old story. Prevention gets bumped to the bottom of the list, and it's not until we're about to close our doors that people take notice."

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