Abortion rights groups say push for abortion access still national issue

By The Canadian Press
April 11, 2016 - 11:32am

HALIFAX — Abortion rights advocates say the fight to get women better access to the procedure is far from done despite progress in Prince Edward Island, which recently became the last province in Canada to allow access within its borders.

The Island government's promise to provide abortion services by the end of the year came just over a week ago as it announced it wouldn't fight a legal challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But abortion advocates aren't calling it a day, saying there's more work to do to improve access, particularly in rural areas, across the country.

Joyce Arthur, of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, says "low to marginal access" to abortions remains a problem in a handful of provinces including Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Access is often excellent in many of the major cities across Canada, but as soon as you get outside the cities and into rural areas and smaller centres then access can be a real problem," said Arthur.

The success of a legal challenge in P.E.I. hasn't gone unnoticed in neighbouring New Brunswick where an abortion advocacy group says it's been stymied by the provincial government's policies and a continuing lack of access, especially in rural areas.

"We've tried lobbying, we've tried political action, we've tried speaking directly to them and it seems like one of the only options left is litigation," said Hannah Gray of Reproductive Justice New Brunswick.

"We want to do everything we can so that we don't have to do that, but it's definitely clear that it's one of the only ways to make politicians move."

The access issue has been controversial in New Brunswick dating back to the 1980s when a government regulation stipulated that women could only receive abortions at two hospitals following referrals from two doctors who certified the procedure as medically necessary.

That changed last year when the province moved to fund abortions at three hospitals in two cities, Moncton and Bathurst, and also scrapped the regulation requiring the approval of two doctors.

But advocates such as Gray maintain the government's actions fall short of its commitment to improve access.

Gray said the Moncton hospitals are only 10 minutes apart, meaning access is still a geographic issue in a province where women are forced to travel large distances and at a greater cost financially to seek abortion services.

New Brunswick Health Minister Victor Boudreau was unavailable for an interview on the subject, but did provide an emailed statement on the government's position.

"We are monitoring the current program to see if more access is required," said Boudreau. "We are gathering data in order to make an evidence-based decision on this matter."

Arthur said her organization would like to see provinces take a more pro-active role in ensuring more widespread access by providing financial incentives to new providers to practice in smaller centres.

She said she would also like Ottawa to enact a federal "buffer zone law" that automatically protects all clinics, hospitals and doctors offices involved in abortion care.

Arthur said gestation limits, which range from 13 weeks to as high as 23 weeks at clinics across the country, could also be examined although it's something she believes is more of a training issue rather than one of policy.

She said provinces and medical schools need to find ways to provide doctors who are available to perform more complicated late term procedures, because currently there simply aren't enough doctors who can do them.

Arthur said advocates will have to continue to push for improvements because abortion is stigmatized and is a politically charged issue.

"To put things into perspective Canada is certainly much better off than most other countries in the world when it comes to abortion access," Arthur said. "But compared to other health care treatments in Canada and availability I think abortion falls short of the mark."

In New Brunswick, Gray said she would at least like to see the government fund Clinic 554, which opened last year following the closure of the former Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton.

Barring that, Gray said a legal challenge could be the only way to get the province to budge, although advocates are still in the preliminary stages of exploring that option.

"They (government) don't see the benefit of providing access and they are doing it based on a cost-based analysis instead of what's best for patients," she said.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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