Abortion advocates say lack of access creates stress, financial strain

The Canadian Press
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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?”

RELATED: P.E.I., Moncton Hospital to improve access to abortions for Island women

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.

RELATED: P.E.I. bishop denounces abortion changes

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.”

RELATED: Anti-abortion rally held in front of P.E.I. legislature

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.

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.”

Organizations: Moncton Hospital, New Brunswick hospital, Abortion Rights Network University of Prince Edward Island United Church Life Association Horizon Health

Geographic location: P.E.I., Moncton, Iceland Halifax Canada Charlottetown New Brunswick

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Recent comments

  • Ground Hog Day
    December 23, 2015 - 08:29

    What The Guardian needs is a few more abortion stories, you just don't write about this enough. And Health PEI needs to make this the number one priority next year because the inconvenience of having to drive two hours for a non-life threatening procedure is unacceptable. I say take money from the dialysis funding so we can make abortion services better, I recommend either a spa like setting or maybe at home service. Obviously someone at The Guardian feels this is the biggest issue facing PEI.

  • Scary people typing here
    December 22, 2015 - 16:33

    Many newspaper shut down their comments section regarding native people. I guess people weren't commenting very nicely. So I ask, why would the paper open up the comments section regarding access to abortions?

  • Starrsky
    December 22, 2015 - 16:33

    FYI The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth in the United States. Raymond EG1, Grimes DA. OBJECTIVE: To assess the safety of abortion compared with childbirth. METHODS: We estimated mortality rates associated with live births and legal induced abortions in the United States in 1998-2005. We used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, birth certificates, and Guttmacher Institute surveys. In addition, we searched for population-based data comparing the morbidity of abortion and childbirth. RESULTS: The pregnancy-associated mortality rate among women who delivered live neonates was 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births. The mortality rate related to induced abortion was 0.6 deaths per 100,000 abortions. In the one recent comparative study of pregnancy morbidity in the United States, pregnancy-related complications were more common with childbirth than with abortion. CONCLUSION: Legal induced abortion is markedly safer than childbirth. The risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion. Similarly, the overall morbidity associated with childbirth exceeds that with abortion.

  • Starrsky
    December 22, 2015 - 16:27

    So many judgements about the lives of others. Specifically women and their sexuality in general. A point to remember : even if both parties use birth control, the failure rate is rather high since most do not use those methods "perfectly". Forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is abusive and very risky. Pregnancy IS more medically risky than a D&C ( an abortion). Anyway, the anti -abortion statements are rather impressively judgemental.

  • Pay the fiddler
    December 22, 2015 - 13:47

    If this is just a last gasp method of birth control these women should be paying double the cost , never mind trying to stick tax payers with the results of your careless sexcapades .

  • Ralphina
    December 22, 2015 - 13:32

    Give it a rest, girls, --- Justin will fix it. He has to, it is against the Health Act not to provide this service. He has the power to withhold health care transfer payments to Provinces, that do not comply. You just sit back and let Justin and Wade duke it out, - and if it is not fixed by the next election,- well by all means vote them both out, -no problemo--

  • From the Fringes
    December 22, 2015 - 12:45

    In situations where there are significant health issues associated with the pregnancy, and rape, abortions should be available and free, right here on PEI. However, where it is an elective procedure, it should also still be available here on PEI, but not free. Using abortion as a method of birth control is wrong in that our tax dollars should not be paying for someone's birth control. Yes, I want to have control of my own body, but that control also involves me making my conscious decision about my choice of method of birth control. And I do not expect taxpayers to pay for that chosen method. However, if I get pregnant and there are health risks (not just an oops, I forgot my pills...), then I should NOT have to travel to Moncton of Halifax for the medical procedure, and should not have to pay for it out of my own pocket.

  • J
    December 22, 2015 - 09:41

    " an unwanted pregnancy" Lame excuse to terminate the beginnings of human life

  • Caringgal
    December 22, 2015 - 08:54

    Maybe these women should work harder at preventing these unwanted pregnancies and they wouldn't have to abort helpless babies.

    December 22, 2015 - 08:09

    The answer is very simple. Use birth control. Why should we as taxpayers fund some costly medical procedure simply because Sarah doesn't have the ability to say no.I am not againdst abortion at all, what I am against is women using abortion as an alternative to birth control. If your going to be in the game, having the necessary protective equipment is a must. Would you send your son out to play hockey without a jockstrap?

    • Laura
      December 22, 2015 - 09:40

      Many women do use birth control and still end up with an unexpected pregnancy. There are several reasons why it might fail, and even if no protection was used we don't punish people for having consensual sex with unwanted pregnancy and childbirth. Not many people would choose to have a medical procedure instead of taking some form of birth control. Taxpayers should fund it because it is a part of health care. We fund pre-natal care and delivery, so why wouldn't we also fund abortions?

    • Susana
      December 22, 2015 - 10:52

      health care? since when a pregnancy is a illness...

    • Susana
      December 22, 2015 - 10:52

      health care? since when a pregnancy is a illness...

    • Mark c
      December 22, 2015 - 15:12

      Why should we as taxpayers fund "Bob's" heart surgery because he chooses to eat himself to death? Because it is a legal medical procedure and that's just how it works. People seriously need to stop forcing their fairy tales on others and live their own lives.