Skip to Main Content

Empowering youth as researchers to improve access to abortion

Categories: , ,

While abortion services and accurate information on reproductive health are vital to our health and wellbeing, access to affirming care isn’t equitable. Stephanie Begun, an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, aims to change that — and is empowering youth researchers to take the lead. 

“Youths’ intersectional perspectives are essential to building optimal approaches to care,” said Begun in Spring 2023 when the Government of Canada announced more than $4.2 million in funding to strengthen access to abortion services. The funding was received in part by the University of British Columbia’s Contraception and Abortion Team (CART-GRAC), where Begun serves as director of social work research. 

Working with youth through the Youth Wellness Lab (YWL), a research collaborative that she co-founded and co-directs with Associate Professor Bryn King, Begun and a team of youth researchers set out to identify new ways to make abortion information and services more accessible, affirming and comfortable for equity-deserving groups, including youth. They are also aiming to develop curricular and continuing professional development materials on abortion information and care for social workers. 

“As someone who identifies as non-binary, abortion discourse and advocacy have often felt women-centric. At times, it has even felt transphobic,” says Cam Bautista, youth research coordinator with YWL. “This work highlights the important intersection of reproductive justice, queerness, and trans healthcare that so often is acknowledged merely on a superficial level. Now more than ever, we need to name trans and non-binary identities within abortion work as integral voices in discourse and active collaborators in this space.” 

During the Summer and Fall of 2023, six YWL researchers under age 29 engaged healthcare and allied helping professionals, including family physicians, OB-GYNs, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, social workers, and abortion navigators from across Canada, in focus groups and individual interviews. The youth-led conversations sought to better understand, compare, and contrast professionals’ efforts in the abortion care workforce, collecting providers’ interdisciplinary perspectives on abortion care practices, while also inquiring about barriers that they see being faced by equity-deserving groups as they seek abortion information and care. A scoping review, led by postdoctoral Research Associate Preetika Sharma, on social work’s role in abortion care, was also carried out and will soon be published.  

The Youth Wellness Lab research team at the Summit in Ottawa. From left to right (standing): Cam Bautista and Ruby; Ayla Arhinson, Sarmitha Sivakumaran, Hajar Seiyad, Preetika Sharma, Stephanie Begun and Anysha Reid-Henry. From left to right (sitting): Ali Pearson, Temulun Bagen, Gaja Ananthathurai

In February the research team presented its findings at a knowledge exchange summit in Ottawa. Common themes unearthed included the need for more resources to support safe and non-judgmental abortion care for transgender and non-binary abortion-seekers and to increase youths’ understanding of their rights to privacy and confidentiality in abortion care. In addition, social workers reported challenges when helping people who are also navigating substance use, under-housing and homelessness, and family and intimate partner violence. They also reported challenges for newcomers lacking health benefits and systems-navigation experience, and youth lacking accurate information and safe situations in which they can exercise their rights to abortion decision-making. 

“Speaking with healthcare professionals to learn about their unique experiences in providing abortion care allowed me to comprehend the barriers and enablers present within both urban and rural communities,” said Sarmitha Sivakumaran one of YWL’s youth researchers. “These conversations, along with the insights gained from the Summit in Ottawa, further inspired me to explore additional avenues for the effective dissemination of comprehensive and meaningful resources to equity-deserving groups.” 

In addition to presenting their research findings, the research team shared knowledge translation resources and tools, such as infographics, provider checklists and youth friendly guides that they are developing as a result of their research. All materials and research findings will eventually be hosted on the YWL website and social media sites, as well as CART web-based platforms. 

“As a proud contributor to this project, I am thrilled to witness its profound impact on reshaping the abortion landscape in Canada,” said Sharma. “It’s especially gratifying to see it address the needs of trans and non-binary individuals, voices too often unheard. This project represents a vital step towards inclusivity and progress, and I have learned so much about the barriers faced by underserved populations in our healthcare system. Together, we are breaking down barriers and paving the way for a more equitable future.”