Q&A on reproductive health research

Human and Social Development

Renée Monchalin (right) and Astrid Pérez Piñán. PHOTO: UVIC PHOTO SERVICES

When the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June, it threw into turmoil the issue of reproductive rights south of the border and made abortion activists in Canada and around the world take notice.

Two UVic faculty members especially paid particular attention, as they’d been working on a research project on access to abortion services for Indigenous people.

Now, Renée Monchalin, an assistant professor in UVic’s School of Public Health and Social Policy, and Astrid Pérez Piñán, an assistant professor in the School of Public Administration, are embarking on a new phase of research, titled The Right to Abortion Project: Coming Together to Improve Culturally Safe Abortion Care for Indigenous Women, Two-Spirit and LGBTQIA+ People in Canada. Funded by a $448,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Monchalin and Pérez Piñán are partnering with Abortion Support Services Atlantic, ekw'í7tl Indigenous doula collective, Northern Manitoba Abortion Support and Northern Reproductive Justice Network to talk to Indigenous people across the country about their experiences accessing abortion services and the care—or lack of care—they received.

In September, Monchalin was awarded a prestigious 2022 Michael Smith Health Research BC Scholar Award, aimed at attracting and retaining BC’s best and brightest health researchers. Monchalin will receive $450,000 over five years to dedicate time to her research with Pérez Piñán and to expand on other health research projects.

Can you explain the difference in scope and approach with this next progression in your research?

Monchalin: With our partners, we are working to expand on our pilot research. We refined some of the questions that we wanted to ask around people's experiences with abortion access, and how to improve it. We're hoping to get at least 40 participants—Indigenous people across the country—and we are also creating a survey for abortion service providers, and specifically service providers who work with Indigenous communities.

It's a three-year project: The first year, we're exploring and learning about abortion access in Canada. In the second year, we're going to convene to review and share the results with service providers and community members because our pilot project really highlighted how communities want this information to be shared in their community settings due to the stigma around abortion. Then, based on that, we're going to decide what to do in the third year of the project. However, our one goal is to really take this global if possible, and learn from what people are doing around the world.

In between the last project and this one, the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. How does that affect your approach to or your thoughts on this research?

Monchalin: In the American context, it is devastating for so many people. Roe v. Wade really put the spotlight on abortion again because a lot of people thought,Oh, it's not something that we need to talk about anymore. It’s legal here. But so many people in Canada don't have access to it based on travel restrictions, financial restrictions. We still need to fight for equitable access amongst all people and recognize that not everyone has the same experience. And in the Indigenous context, it's even less talked about. Through our work, we're able to reveal the layered complexities with abortion access in the Indigenous community. One thing that came out of the recommendations of our pilot project was people would love to see abortion services be more culturally safe, honouring local traditions or knowledge while, at the same time, recognizing that people in Indigenous communities are unique amongst themselves and may not all carry the same belief systems.

Pérez Piñán: For me, it brought an increased sense of responsibility. It raised my awareness of how important it is that we do this well because we cannot take for granted our rights here. These [anti-abortion] ideas from the US carry, there are currents that are seeping into Canada. There are certain views that affect how people see women's rights. So we need to have that complex conversation, from the policy frameworks to the specificities of where to get one and how much it costs. It's an important time to be very thorough about this work and about making sure that we cement and consolidate this.

Abortion is legal in Canada but that that may not to be enough to ensure safe and accessible reproductive care here. How do you hope your research can remove barriers to abortion services for Indigenous people?

Pérez Piñán: If there is a sense that there's not a problem here and there’s a sense of complacency, then these things are not going to get addressed because no one knows about them, right? We have work to do collaboratively with those who are in the forefront of abortion care provision, and that can inform the way the message is given that can make their own services stronger. I think there's a lot to learn.

Monchalin: One thing that most of the participants in our pilot work shared is the importance of sharing their stories and experiences, and really putting those out there for people to learn. I'm hoping policymakers and governments will say, “Wow, I didn't realize this impacted so many people, or they have to drive 12 hours to go in for an appointment or get on a couple of buses from the north of Manitoba.”

Also, we're going to be using some of the funding towards education and awareness. For example, soon, we're meeting with the community partners to have a conversation on providing a national webinar around abortion access in Canada, emphasizing abortion access amongst Indigenous peoples, but also just giving space to the community partners to highlight some of the work they're doing.

And as we move forward, we want to peel back the layers and show how cultures and communities all around the world have been practising methods of abortion, contraception, prevention—all of this for centuries. If people were aware of that, and realize that it wasn't this new Western kind of development, there may be more acceptance.


In this story

Keywords: community, Indigenous, health, reconciliation, colonialism, research, public administration

People: Renee Monchalin, Astrid Pérez Piñán

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