Toronto has long been a nucleus of women's rights activism.
In 1960, Barbara and George Cadbury (yes, of the Cadbury Mini Eggs), sitting in their living room, read an article about yet another pharmacist who had been charged for providing birth control. They decided enough was enough, and Planned Parenthood Toronto was the result. Planned Parenthoods were already established in other areas (in the U.S., Planned Parenthood turns 100 this year), but efforts to bring them to Canada and start a national federation were stalled by the combination of a powerful Roman Catholic presence and apathy. The Cadburys fought against both. They organized, they lobbied, they informed, they wrote letters, and their efforts assisted greatly in what some people take for granted today: relatively easy access to the ability to decide if and when you have children.
Now, more than 50 years later, the struggles are both different and the same. We’ve changed quite a bit at PPT. We’ve gone from a collection of well-meaning society types pushing back against puritanical social control to a leading youth community health centre. We now offer respectful and non-judgmental primary care (doctors and nurse practitioners), mental health support, sexual health research, advocacy, and a wide variety of community programs focused on working with the most underserved youth—but we’re still pushing back against puritanical social control.
Our tagline is “Choice is Yours.” That might strike some as a victory cry from the people who fought the battle after birth control: legal abortion. It isn’t. We did play a role in that victory as well, but what we really want people to understand is that choice as a concept extends far beyond abortion. Abortion, being an issue of bodily autonomy, is a logical starting point for a larger sentiment: you deserve to be able to make the choices that affect your life. Reproduction, sexual health, and identity are at the core of that.
Choice means respect, and it means consent. Planned Parenthood is a leader in defending and expanding choice, sexual health, and rights. We understand that sexual health is not a separate category within overall health but a fundamental part of it. We understand the primal role of choice, and have for a long time.
Choice is a sharp knife, and it slices through the soft centre of politics. Because of this, it’s also dangerous and powerful, and that surely contributes to its appeal as a wedge issue. Choices mean power, and there is never a shortage of people looking to take your power and keep it for themselves. Lack of choice can turn the knife inward.
It would be easy to say that choice matters now more than ever. It would be a fine rallying cry, but honestly, it’s not true. It matters a lot. It mattered a lot in 1961, and 1941, and 1901, and so on. What does matter in a heightened way is our attitudes toward choice and our commitment to protecting and expanding it. There is a lot of justified concern about the future of choice and of sexual health, women’s health, and reproductive rights. Trump has surfed a wave of reactionary sentiment into the Oval Office. We have leadership elections looming in Canada. At PPT, we get asked all the time, “Can it happen here?” The answer is yes, definitely. But it won’t, if we don’t let it.
These issues matter to all of us. An opportunity lies before you now; you will decide whether to play a role by sharing your perspective and energy. There are a few ways you can get involved: find people or places doing work you support and join in; start your own project with the talents at your disposal, and let it grow; run for office, or support someone who is; perhaps just throw a few bucks at an organization fostering choice. Whatever you do, I urge you to be as forceful and unapologetic as you can. I also urge you to listen, really listen, to others who are sharing their perspective. There is always a lot to learn.
In a 1963 interview when discussing the urgent need for equal access to birth control information, Barbara Cadbury said, “We just want to allow people to do the things they want to do, but are prevented from doing.” Some things never change.
Choice is yours. Support that. Expand it. Defend it.
Sarah Hobbs Blyth is the executive director at Planned Parenthood Toronto.