BUILDING A COALITION on the "G" Case in British Columbia

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by Nancy Poole

From my vantage point working with women's addiction treatment programs, I have observed that activists on women and addictions issues and those working to prevent alcohol and other drug-related developmental disabilities (ADRDD) in Canada have tended to work in isolation from each other. The polarities we have seen in the public debate surrounding the "G" case mirror the continuing struggle to find common ground.

Those working in the ADRDD field have tended to focus primarily on the health of children of women who use alcohol or drugs while pregnant. Their challenge, similar to that of society as a whole, is to find compassion for the women who continue to use substances while pregnant and to truly accept the efficacy of empowering, voluntary, holistic care.

For our part, feminists working in the addictions field are dismayed that society's concern about helping women with substance use problems has often seemed to be reserved for those who are pregnant, and by the shortage of addictions treatment programs that address the health needs of women throughout their lifespan, in all their diversity. In our effort to bring attention to women's treatment needs, we have often ignored issues related to women's use of alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy.

Vancouver is an encouraging exception to the general trend. Here, the two fields no longer work in such isolation from each other, and have gained a greater understanding each other's viewpoints. Over the past 10 years, dedicated ADRDD advocates have developed innovative services for women at risk of having a child -- and learning to parent a child -- with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or other ADRDD.

Two examples of this fine work are Sheway, a pregnancy outreach program, and the YWCA's Crabtree Corner FAS/E Prevention Project (see sidebar). In the past year in Vancouver, some wonderful links have been forged among treatment providers in the addictions field and women working in the ADRDD field. The service providers in the ADRDD field have been generous in their welcome of the addiction treatment providers to their circle!

It was in this context that the media work on the "G" case took place. Representatives of the Aurora Centre, a multifaceted women's treatment program based at the B.C. Women's of the Children's and Women's Health Centre of B.C., with support from the new B.C. Centre of Excellence on Women's Health, initiated a process of building consensus among those working on ADRDD issues, Aboriginal women's health advocates, and addictions treatment providers -- and took our position public.

We agreed that it was critical to challenge the prevailing view that pregnant women with addictions problems are incompetent and incapable of choosing recovery, and to emphasize that the health interests of mother and child are inextricably linked. We also wanted to underscore the effectiveness of programs that take a caring, welcoming, and empowering approach to pregnant women who use alcohol and/or other drugs, and to stress that these programs are few and far between.

On June 16, two days before the "G" case was heard, the members of our coalition* made a powerful statement with these messages, standing together before the media and a sizable crowd of supporters, at a media conference held at the Vancouver YWCA.

We now turn our energy to influencing the policy of B.C.'s new Ministry for Children and Families on this issue. We have been strengthened by the solidarity of Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg and the rest of the Women's Health Rights Coalition and hope we all have something to celebrate together in the forthcoming decision of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Nancy Poole is a consultant with the Aurora Centre at the Children's and Women's Health Centre of B.C. She also works with the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health.

*We were Sandra Pronteau, mother of four and recovered addict, Angie Todd-Dennis, President of the Association of First Nations' Women, Dr. Christine Loock, pediatrician with Sunny Hill Health Centre, Sarah Payne, midwife with Sheway, Barb Panter of the YWCA Crabtree Corner Prevention Project, Jan Lutke of the B.C. FAS Parent Support Network, Thelma Woelke, addictions counsellor with the Hey'-Wey'-Noqu' Healing Circle, Dr. Penny Ballem, Chair of the B.C. Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, and Nancy Poole and Gail Malmo of the Aurora Centre.