Women turning to desperate measures due to lack of abortion services

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on November 10, 2011
Kandace Hagan
Guardian photo

A 14-year-old P.E.I. girl who discovered she was pregnant turned to desperate measures of self-harm to induce an abortion due to lack of access on P.E.I.

For two weeks, she ingested chemicals. She tried repeatedly ramming her stomach into a table. She tried getting drunk and throwing herself down the stairs.

Her body was bruised and damaged, but she still didn’t want anyone to know what was going on.

This is just one experience of many that Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie at UPEI has gathered in a research project on the health impacts of abortion policies on P.E.I.

Despite the project being still in early stages, MacQuarrie says she is shocked at the similarities in stories from women who have or tried to have abortions.

Many have been turning to self-harm.

“If you limit options then you create desperation, and then desperate people do things they wouldn’t normally do. It’s deeply disturbing,” she said.

Prince Edward Island is the only province in Canada that does not provide any abortion services. The procedure is not done in Island hospitals and there are no private clinics that offer the service in the province.

This lack of access has left P.E.I. women with limited options with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

The provincial government does cover the cost of the procedure off-Island, but only when done in a hospital and if a woman has been referred by two doctors – one from P.E.I. and one from the doctor performing the procedure.

Women must travel to the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax or the private Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton, but the province will not fund any abortions performed at private clinics.

Fees at private clinics, where a doctor’s referral is not needed, are roughly around $800, not including travel. The province does not cover any travel expenses.

Getting this kind of information on what services are available and what other steps are necessary for this procedure is not easy.

Those who call the health department are often told to contact women’s groups for information. The Guardian attempted to get information from the Department of Health and Wellness for this article and received nothing. And those who go to their doctors may not fare much better.

“There are doctors who just don’t give referrals. There are doctors who say that’s not what they do… one woman, her doctor refused to even see her,” MacQuarrie said, citing examples from her research.

Kandace Hagen experienced first-hand the difficulties in getting information when looking to terminate a pregnancy a few years ago.

“I wasn’t aware what my options were and I just wanted to know how I could go about making sure that happened,” she said.

“(The doctor) told me that my only option was to go to the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton and gave me the number and that was it. He left the room.”

He did not offer a referral to the Halifax hospital where the procedure would be covered by the province. He didn’t tell Hagen she would require an ultrasound and a blood test to be conducted on P.E.I. prior to travelling to an off-Island clinic. He also didn’t tell her she needed to have all this done within a short period of time, as the regional clinics only perform abortions up to 15 weeks after conception.

“He very quickly wanted to wash his hands of it and keep going,” Hagen said.

“I definitely felt there was a stigma surrounding it.”

Hagen is now working with a group of women lobbying for changes to P.E.I.’s abortion policies. It has recently gained local and national media attention by bringing the issue to the forefront.

But this lobby group is not alone in its effort to bring forward a discussion over the Island’s lack of abortion services.

The P.E.I. Ad-Hoc Abortion Rights Committee, comprised of several women’s groups and private citizens, formed several years ago and has been holding more regular meetings for the past six months.

It recently published an information sheet with all the details needed for women looking for an abortion. It was placed in doctor’s offices around the Island.

“Women and women’s organizations have gotten together to discuss the state of access to abortion services and reproductive justice issues and share information and discuss possible strategies for working with government and working with doctors to make sure women have access to a service that’s available in other provinces in Canada,” said Jane Ledwell, a researcher with the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women, which is part of this ad-hoc committee.

It is now working to support the work of Hagen’s Reproductive Rights Organization lobby group in trying to get changes to the current provincial policies.

P.E.I. Green Party Leader Sharon Labchuk has also come out in support of this group, calling P.E.I.’s abortion policy to be “blatant discrimination against women, especially low-income women.”

P.E.I. Health Minister Doug Currie has said he has no plans to change the current abortion policies or laws.

But MacQuarrie believes this status-quo stance will have to change.

“There’s a saturation beginning about the real harms that are happening to women because of these policies,” she said.

“There’s enough there for me to confidently say that we have a real health issue here. It’s probably more than we ever thought when we started.”