Canada wrapped up its appearance before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Thursday, February 25th with disappointing responses to Committee members on questions related to sexual and reproductive health in Canada.
Despite being asked numerous times by the Committee to discuss how it would address discrepancies in access to abortion services, if it would implement a referral system when physicians refuse to provide services on moral or religious grounds and to discuss access to sexuality education, officials in Geneva representing the Government either refused to address the issue or provided cursory responses.
Specifically, the government ignored all questions related to sexuality education and on the issue of education more broadly, said it is a strictly provincial jurisdiction. This is concerning given the severe discrepancies which exist in the delivery of comprehensive sexuality education in Canada – where some students currently receive misleading or inaccurate information regarding diverse forms of families, how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, where to go for non-judgemental counselling, etc. As a result of the uneven application of such curricula, we’re seeing rising rates of new HIV and STI infections among young people, persistently high rates of sexual violence and discriminatory treatment of trans youth – all which could begin to be addressed if children and young people had access to accurate, rights and evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education, in line with recommendations from the Committee on the rights to education and health.
Similarly, the Committee did not hear from Canada whether it would play a leadership role in developing national guidelines for the development of a referral system in cases when physicians refuse to provide services (often sexual and reproductive health services) on moral and religious grounds. Again, Canada cited federal-provincial/territorial jurisdictional issues as a barrier. But the truth is, the federal government is well within its right to ensure provinces and territories provide barrier-free access to health services in line with the principle of universality under the Canada Health Act.
Finally, on the issue of access to abortion services in Canada, the government responded that through the Canada Health Act, provinces and territories must ensure access to medically necessary services, (which abortion is) yet did not comment on what steps it would take to hold provinces or territories accountable if they are found to be in violation of the Act (like PEI).
Despite these disappointing response, the government representative speaking to the issue of heath did acknowledge that there is room for improvement in the delivery of health care, particularly to Indigenous peoples. On this, the representatives recognized the federal government’s renewed approach to working with Indigenous leaders, communities, advocates and organizations which extends to the delivery of health care.
Canada’s responses speak to the larger issue of the Government refusing to acknowledge the validity of Economic, Social and Cultural rights, on par with Civil and Political rights. This approach contradicts Canada’s renewed spirit of engagement in UN processes and support for human rights globally.
It is anticipated that the Committee will release its Concluding Observations next week, which we hope will include strong recommendations to Canada on how it can address violations under the Covenant related specifically to sexual and reproductive rights.