Government’s abortion policy remains elusive

Currie distances himself personally, but officially backs province’s stand

Published on November 8, 2014

Prince Edward Island Health Minister Doug Currie

©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel

You won’t find the policy in any P.E.I. cabinet documents, Royal Gazette proclamations or political party minutes — at least none that will be made public anytime soon. But there is a policy followed by Island governments since the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark Morgentaler ruling in 1988 — abortion services will be funded but referred to off-Island hospitals.

So the question can be asked why are pro-choice, some women’s groups and some health professionals acting so surprised and outraged about the government’s latest actions on this issue?

Health Minister Doug Currie made it plain this week the policy isn’t his policy and doesn’t fall in line with his personal viewpoints. In other words, it’s the policy of Premier Robert Ghiz and others in the Liberal government. Mr. Currie is scrambling for higher and safer ground on this one.

There is a group of Islanders — such as those mentioned earlier — appalled at the government’s failure to provide in-province reproductive rights options to Island women.  

There is another group of Islanders — such as pro-life groups, various churches, religious organizations and a number of women — who applaud the government’s decision to maintain a ‘life sanctuary’ on P.E.I.

And there is likely a sizable number of Islanders with no strong feelings either way, or who are reluctant to voice them, but are just tired of the whole issue and weary of the letters, petitions, marches and demonstrations.

Last year a physician from Nova Scotia approached Health P.E.I. offering to provide abortions on the Island. A working group was formed to see how this might work, while Health P.E.I. and QEH officials began developing a plan for twice a month clinics. A review, criticized by government as not verified, suggested the province could save $37,000 a year by offering abortion services at the QEH.

Pro-abortion groups seized on this to proclaim that the last barrier to abortions on P.E.I. had been removed. It was somehow incomprehensible that this money issue didn’t trump all other considerations. This economic argument was somehow supposed to change government’s mind.

As expected, government stepped in and said the discussion and planning were a waste of time because government’s policy hadn’t changed. Mr. Currie denies that he was responsible for shutting down the proposal but notes the whole issue was moot because “we didn’t change the policy.” The minister added that Health P.E.I. should not have even developed the proposal, since government’s policy on this issue was clear.

The government will argue, and indeed it’s the official stance of the minister of health, that Island women are being provided those reproductive health options, just not on P.E.I. The minister says P.E.I. women have access to publicly funded abortions and that the province has programs for women who cannot afford the travel costs to Halifax. Mr. Currie said thousands of Islanders are referred to regional hospitals for a variety of health services every year so why is there such a furor over abortion?

Again, why are some people surprised? It's a political decision and always has been. And for that reason, the government will have to defend its policy in the next election. Then Islanders can render their decision at the ballot box.

The only way this provincial policy will change any time soon is to elect an NDP government because the provincial Tories are on same page as the P.E.I. Liberals. That option appears remote so what’s left – electing more pro-choice Liberal or Tory candidates?

Pro-choice groups have a strong case when they argue the premier and others in the current government are using their personal and moral beliefs to create public policy. Mr. Ghiz obviously believes a majority of Islanders supports him on this issue.