Prince Edward Island policy on abortions called harmful

UPEI professor critical of policy; pro-life group meeting in city sings its praises

Jim Day
Published on October 26, 2013

Dr. Debra Zeni, a family physician in Georgetown, Ont., was a guest speaker at the National Pro-Life Conference in Charlottetown this week. She lauds P.E.I. for not performing surgical abortions.

©Guardian photo by Jim Day

Many Prince Edward Island women continue to endure great harm from living in the only province in Canada that does not perform surgical abortions, says a UPEI psychology professor.

“Poorer and younger women are most likely to be harmed by a policy that forces you to leave the Island to have a safe, surgical abortion,’’ says Colleen MacQuarrie, who has been conducting a research study on the effects of the lack of abortion services for Island women.

P.E.I. currently does not provide traditional surgical abortions in-province, but does pay for the procedure off-Island if performed in a hospital and with an Island doctor’s referral. Government does not cover abortions performed at private clinics.

MacQuarrie notes that the last safe, surgical abortion was performed on P.E.I. in 1982.

“Abortion has always taken place here,’’ she said. “It just hasn’t been safe.’’

MacQuarrie has heard from a number of women who self-induced their own abortion in P.E.I.

She said some did damage to their bodies where they can no longer carry a pregnancy. Some were bruised so badly, they stayed away from school. Others became quite ill.

“Suicide has been considered by some,’’ she said. “When you limit options, it breeds desperation.’’

MacQuarrie says many hurdles have kept women from traveling off-Island to get a desired abortion. They may, she explains, have been blocked by physicians refusing to give them information or they could have been held back by family members pressuring them to carry out the pregnancy.

The logistics to get off-Island is also prohibitive to some, everything from cost to simply difficulty finding a person willing to give a ride.

“There are so many hoops that we’ve created,’’ says MacQuarrie. “You need resources to travel off-Island to get an abortion.’’

MacQuarrie says on the promising side more than one medical physician is currently performing medically induced, or chemical, abortions on P.E.I. While she views this as a positive step, medical abortions are only effective during the first nine weeks of pregnancy, less in some cases.

“What we have (in P.E.I.) is still far from fair and equitable for women,’’ she says.

Health Minister Doug Currie declined to weigh in on the issue Friday.

The Guardian requested an interview with Currie, in light of a National Pro-Life Conference taking place this week in Charlottetown, to answer some questions on the controversial topic.

The following curt email was the only response offered: “At this time the department wouldn’t have anything to add regarding the conference being held. There are no changes planned to the provincial policies regarding abortion services.’’

Twenty-five years after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s abortion law as unconstitutional, delegates at the National Pro-Life Conference were singing the praises of P.E.I. for being the lone province in Canada that does not perform surgical abortions.

Dr. Debra Zeni, an Ontario family physician, calls P.E.I. progressive.

“I think there is an advantage to being small because I think when you are small like P.E.I., it is easy to be authentic,’’ Zeni told The Guardian.

Zeni is confident she will once again see an abortion law in place in Canada.

“Maybe I am naïve but I really think that when — when — we acknowledge together our own complicity in the situation in which we have arrived at in Canada where we don’t have a law (on abortion) — we haven’t had a law for 25 years — and we combine that with a feeling of compassion...than yes, yes we can, start having a law,’’ she says.

“Do I think we have to start small? Yes. Do I hope to see it in my lifetime? Absolutely.’’

Natalie Hudson Sonnen is executive director of Life Canada, an umbrella group for the Pro-Life movement. She describes the National Pro-Life Conference in Charlottetown this week as an opportunity for networking and rejuvenation.

No strategy or campaign will be developed during the conference to work towards the strongly held goal of Pro-Lifers to see the practice of abortion brought to a halt in this country.

Meeting that lofty objective, Sonnen notes, will require a tremendous amount of education.

“It is going to require an understanding that abortion is not a good thing for women,’’ she says.

“I think that we would be a much more enlightened and a much more peaceful country if we did not have abortion — if we really tapped into the resources, into the communities, into the families, into places that could really help a woman in a crisis pregnancy.’’