Aborting equal access rights

Canadian women are still fighting for abortion rights, because at least one province is far behind the times

It’s not surprising that access to abortion is restrictive when you live in a place led by a man whose father is a Christian minister.

However, when that place is New Brunswick and the man in question is your premier, David Alward – well, now, there’s a surprise.

Under a provincial regulation enacted in 1984, a woman needs notes from two doctors stating that an abortion is “medically required,” and insurance only covers the procedure if it’s performed in a hospital by an obstetrics and gynecology specialist.

This is not the case in any other province.

Premier Alward did not reply to multiple calls and emails for comment.

When NOW contacted federal Minister of Health Rona Ambrose seeking her comments, we received an email reiterating that the federal government long ago downloaded health care to the provinces.

“If citizens of New Brunswick are concerned, they must contact their provincial government, responsible for making these decisions,” writes Ambrose’s communications person. The response made no mention of the regulation that contradicts the Canada Health Act.

Under the Canada Health Act, abortions are an essential service covered by health insurance. So from a legal standpoint, New Brunswick is in violation of the Canada Health Act, according to Kim Stanton, legal director of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund.

“Can you think of any other medical procedure that requires two doctors’ permission?” she asks in an interview. “It’s a procedure that’s legal in Canada. Why should a woman have to go through these hoops?”

That’s why Henry Morgentaler, a pioneer in the abortion rights movement in Canada, opened a private clinic in Fredericton 20 years ago. Approximately 60 per cent of the province’s abortions have been performed there, and it supplies $10,000 annually to help some of its 600 to 700 patients pay for the procedure.

The clinic has offered pro-rated and even pro bono procedures for women in an under-serviced area. Some patients travel from Nova Scotia, a 10-hour drive from Sydney, or PEI.

Due to lack of funding, the Morgentaler Clinic will shut its doors in June. Morgentaler had previously funded the clinic himself, and since it wasn’t run on a for-profit model, the facility had been operating at a deficit for some time..

Abortions in clinics throughout Canada are funded under the provincial health care plan.

The New Brunswick clinic’s closure has sparked national protests by women’s rights activists.

One young woman has roused the fervour of a new generation of feminists: Sorcha Beirne, a 16-year-old high school student in Fredericton, organized an April 17 rally that attracted over 500 protesters.

When the clinic announced it would close, Beirne and her group became involved in the fight to get it funded. Planned Parenthood and Morgentaler clinics are provincially funded in almost every other province in Canada.

For Beirne and her group, “this is an accessibility problem, not a pro-life or pro-choice debate,” she says. “We do have law we just need the access.”

Micki Landa, a women’s rights activist who first took up the cause in the 60s, and thousands of others joined rallies across Canada to support equal access to abortion.

“I can’t believe we still have to fight for these rights in Canada,” Landa said at a rally in Toronto the same day.

Considering that most Canadians don’t know the price of health care in our country, the true cost is shocking.

In Halifax, an abortion at hospital “costs $1,800,” said Simone Leibovitch, manager of the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic. Her clinic charges between $700 and $800, offering partial and full subsidies for those who can’t afford the procedure. The clinic’s motto, after all, is, “Every mother a willing mother, every child a wanted child.”

This makes it cost-beneficial for the province to fund facilities like the Morgentaler Clinic.

Asked about the range of people she’s seen come through in her seven years as manager, Leibovitch says, “It’s everyone. It’s young women. It’s old women. It’s women that have their tubes tied or with husbands that have vasectomies. Birth control is far from perfect.

“Nobody gets pregnant to have an abortion,” she says. “Shit happens!”

If the clinic closes, the only facility in New Brunswick offering abortions outside of hospitals will be gone. Currently, 50 per cent of women from PEI who seek an abortion go there.

“That’s going to be a crisis for all kinds of people,” said Michelle Robidoux of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics at the Toronto rally. “That’s a huge chunk of services just gone. We need an expansion of services now.”

Robidoux turned the issue on its ear with an astute example: “If a woman who’s pregnant and wants to have the baby in New Brunswick is told she has to have the consent of two doctors to do that, it would be a no-brainer.

“It’s punitive, it’s paternalistic, it’s against the Canada Health Act,” she said of the regulation.

About 100 protesters lined Yonge Street at Yonge-Dundas Square on Thursday, holding coat hangers and signs that read, “Rona Ambrose enforce the Canada Health Act,” “Honk for choice” and “Thou shalt not mess with women’s reproductive rights – Fallopians” (a play on a Biblical reference).

For Robidoux, the most inspiring part of the day was the number of young women who came to the rally.

“This is their time now to really take this and run with it and win it for women right across the country,” she says.

In New Brunswick the next steps include writing MPs, organizing more rallies and forging cross-provincial partnerships.

Beirne says, “We’re very certain we will achieve what we want eventually, and we’re going to keep fighting for what we think we deserve. We’re definitely not going let this go now that we’ve got things started.”

cynthiam@nowtoronto.com | @CynthiaJMcQueen

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