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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November - December 2023

Searching for solutions

Rachel Cairns frankly addresses gaps in Canadian abortion care in her new play

Dominique Gené

Rachel Cairns gives a serious gaze with the words Hypothetical Baby written in yellow in the background

“How do I get an abortion?” an anxious woman asks the doctor. He responds with his own questions about her relationship status, her income and her decision to not have a child. This interaction isn’t fictitious; it’s the opening scene of Rachel Cairns’s podcast “Aborsh” and her upcoming autobiographical play, Hypothetical Baby.

Her unhelpful doctor’s appointment prompted Cairns to turn to Google for the information she needed. It also forced her to think about the state of reproductive justice in Canada and all of the people without access.

Abortion has been legal in Canada since 1969, but at that time, could only be approved by a panel of doctors and only performed if a pregnancy threatened the life or health of a pregnant person. In 1988, this approach was ruled unconstitutional, and abortion was more fully legalized. However, barriers to abortion care remain. Despite increased availability of medical abortions, which are induced by taking pills called mifepristone and misoprostol and can be prescribed online, surgical abortions are often inaccessible in rural areas. Many patients seeking this care end up needing to pay out of pocket to travel to clinics outside their cities or towns, and many end up unable to access the care they need at all.

Cairns was eventually able to get an abortion on Christmas Eve, 2019. She started writing the play the next summer as a way to process, and also to share. While it’s a one-woman show, Hypothetical Baby prompts the audience to think about the state of abortion access in Canada like Cairns did when she was googling to fill the gaps in her own health care.

Now that Hypothetical Baby is almost out in the world, Cairns says she feels both excited and nervous. “I’m trying to talk about abortion and reproductive choice and fertility publicly in the way we talk about it privately with the closest people in our lives,” Cairns says. “We talk about it privately with heart, humour, irreverence, oversharing, honesty, neurotic vulnerability. I’m trying to humanize the experience and show how fraught it is for many people.”

Cairns, who had an IUD at the time she became pregnant, says she grappled with the complexities surrounding her abortion. “It didn’t feel like I was choosing anything because I hadn’t consented to this [pregnancy] as a possibility,” she says. “At the same time, it was a choice that was informed by so many personal and societal factors that affect all of us, like housing, access to childcare, livable wages for the city you live in.”

As the pandemic halted live performances, Cairns turned the play into her award-winning podcast, “Aborsh.” In the podcast, Cairns speaks with experts and activists about reproductive freedom in Canada while sharing her own story.

Cairns’s work promises an honest conversation about abortion that sees her navigating the surprising emotions she experienced surrounding her choice to not become a parent. Written and performed by Cairns, Hypothetical Baby runs December 8 to 17 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.

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