© Guardian photo by Mitch MacDonald
Approximately 50 people showed up to the rally in Charlottetown for the National Day of Action on Reproductive Justice.
It was when Sarah was getting instructions on finding the unit at the New Brunswick hospital where she would undergo an abortion that she realized the lengths women from P.E.I. have to go to obtain the procedure.
The young woman, who didn't want to use her real name, was on the phone for more than an hour as a nurse explained how to navigate the hospital's maze of hallways, and what would happen once she arrived.
She made the call discreetly, not wanting her boss to know she would take a day off to make the two-hour trip to the Moncton Hospital to end an unwanted pregnancy.
Upset and nervous, the 26-year-old secretly lined up a drive with a friend and arranged to stay in a hotel in Moncton so she would be on time for her 6 a.m. appointment.
“That's when it hit me what I was going through,” she said in an interview.
“You feel isolated and shunned - it hurts your feelings and it just doesn't make sense in this day and age. It just seems like, why wouldn't you help women here?”
It is a ritual that plays out routinely for women in the only province in Canada that does not provide surgical abortions within its borders, and one that pro-choice advocates say remains fraught with challenges despite pledges by the provincial government to remove barriers to abortion access.
Liberal Premier Wade MacLaughlan announced soon after his election in May that women from P.E.I. would be able to get surgical abortions in Moncton without the need for a doctor's referral, a measure that received guarded praise from pro-choice advocates.
Under the arrangement, women who are less than 14 weeks pregnant can call a toll-free line for an appointment and have everything done in one day, when possible.
Previously, women needed a doctor's approval and had to have blood and diagnostic work done on the Island before travelling almost four hours to Halifax for the operation.
Or they could go to a private clinic and pay upwards of $700 for the procedure.
Abortion rights advocates say both are costly and stressful options for women, who rely on volunteers to do everything from finding people to accompany them to the hospital to arranging childcare.
Becka Viau of the Abortion Rights Network helps women figure out requirements for bloodwork and pinpoint how far along they are in their pregnancy, as well as line up drivers, babysitters and meals while raising funds to cover things like the $45 bridge toll, phone cards and lost wages.
“The pressure on the community to carry the safety of Island woman is ridiculous,” she said. “You can only look at the facts for so long to see the kind of harm that's being done to women in this province by not having access.”
Still, for some MacLauchlan's announcement was a significant change for a province that has fought for decades to keep abortions out of its jurisdiction, with some seeing it as the beginning of the end of the restrictive policy.
Some say opposition to abortion access is quietly waning on the Island, where it is not uncommon to see pro-choice rallies and political candidates.
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Colleen MacQuarrie, a psychology professor at the University of Prince Edward Island who has studied the issue for years, said the Moncton plan had been discussed with former premier Robert Ghiz and was considered a first step toward making abortions available in the province.
But a month after those discussions, Ghiz resigned.
Reached at his home, he refused to comment on the talks but said everything was on the table.
“We've created the evidence and we've gotten community support,” said MacQuarrie, who published a report in 2014 that chronicled the experiences of women who got abortions off-Island.
“It has gotten better, but better is not enough. We need to have local access.”
Rev. John Moses, a United Church minister in Charlottetown, published a sermon that condemned abortion opponents for not respecting a woman's right to control her health and called on politicians to “stop ducking the issue.”
“To tell people that they can't or to make it as difficult as we possibly can for them to gain access to that service strikes me as a kind of patriarchal control of women's bodies,” he said in an interview.
“It's a cheap form of righteousness.”
Holly Pierlot, president of the P.E.I. Right to Life Association, says she's concerned about the easing of restrictions and plans to respond with education campaigns aimed specifically at youth.
“Politically, we've certainly got a bit of a problem,” she said. “We were disappointed by the new policies brought in by the provincial government and we are concerned by the federal move to increase access to abortion.”
Horizon Health in New Brunswick says the Moncton clinic saw 61 women from P.E.I. from July through to Nov. 30.
P.E.I. Health Minister Doug Currie did not agree to an interview, but a department spokeswoman says that from April to October the province covered 44 abortions in Halifax and 33 in Moncton.
“The government made a commitment to address the barriers to access and they acted very quickly on it,” Jean Doherty said.
It's not clear whether that will be enough to satisfy the new federal Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who told The Guardian in September that “it's important that every Canadian across this country has access to a full range of health services, including full reproductive services, in every province.”
The party also passed a resolution in 2012 to financially penalize provinces that do not ensure access to abortion services.
In an interview, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott would only say the issue is on her radar.
“This is something I am aware of, that I will be looking into and discussing with my team here and with my provincial and territorial counterparts,” she said.
Successive provincial governments have argued that the small province cannot provide every medical service on the Island or that there are no doctors willing to perform abortions, something pro-choice activist Josie Baker says is untrue.
“We're tired of being given the run around when it comes to a really basic medical service that should have been solved 30 years ago,” she said.
“The most vulnerable people in our society are the ones that are suffering the most from it. There's no reason for it other than lack of political will.”