HALIFAX — Advocates are calling on Nova Scotia to improve access to abortion services to help make the process "less painful, less emotional, and faster."
Lenore Zann, NDP critic for women's issues, says the province's doctor shortage creates a problem for women seeking abortions because there are fewer medical professionals to do ultrasounds or prescribe Mifegymiso, better known as the abortion pill.
"We need more doctors, especially gynecologists and people that can help women with their own specific health issues," she said Monday, noting that more doctors specializing in women's health could help make patients feel more comfortable and cared for.
"Abortion issues, and many different women's issues with their health, are very personal and can also get very emotional."
As of Sept. 1, the waiting list for a family doctor tops 56,000.
This comes days after The Globe and Mail's Atlantic bureau chief published an account of her experience hitting multiple roadblocks while trying to get an abortion in Nova Scotia, before eventually flying to Toronto for the procedure.
Zann said hearing stories like hers highlights the need for faster access to abortion services, especially since the nature of the procedure is so time-sensitive.
"This is not okay in this day and age for a modern public," she said. "Women in particular need to be treated with tender, loving care, especially when it comes to these issues around their body."
In Nova Scotia, patients can have a medical abortion using pills up to nine weeks pregnant while surgical abortions can be obtained up to 15 weeks pregnant.
Health department spokeswoman Tracy Barron said in an email that three regional hospitals offer abortion services in addition to the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, which handles 80 per cent of abortions in the province. There are no free-standing clinics in Nova Scotia that provide abortions.
"Abortion services are consolidated to ensure a level of expertise is maintained by physicians and staff in providing these services," said Barron, adding that physicians and nurse practitioners are able to prescribe Mifegymiso and the department has recorded 62 different prescribers to date.
Frederique Chabot, director of health promotion with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said a lack of places that provide abortion services means women, especially in rural areas, would sometimes need to travel for hours to access this service — with some paying out of pocket in travel costs, childcare, and lost wages for time taken off work.
"There are such huge, missing pieces in terms of truly effecting change in access to a full package of reproductive health services," she said.
The province has recently improved access to abortion services, including funding the abortion pill in November 2017 and giving Nova Scotians the option to self-refer for an abortion earlier this year.
But Chabot said these announcements are little more than "lip service" if the government doesn't follow up with concrete steps to help women access these resources.
"If there was no real inquiry with people who need those services, who have accessed them, who have experienced the barriers to those services, to truly understand what needs to happen ... then we're not making a huge dent in terms of accessibility," she said.
Bridgewater-based obstetrician and gynecologist Robyn MacQuarrie said Monday that navigating the health care system can be a challenge for women and more doctors are needed to expand service coverage.
But she said in her experience, abortion access in Nova Scotia is on par with other Canadian provinces.
She said patients may have to wait for services because doctors need to ensure they are doing their jobs as responsibly as possible, adding that a patient once got annoyed with her for not prescribing her Mifegymiso without meeting with her first.
"It is not an antibiotic," said MacQuarrie. "It's a medication that needs to be used carefully, so we make sure people meet the eligibility criteria, that all the careful steps are being taken to make sure we're taking safe care of women, not increasing their risk."
She noted that the majority of the abortions she deals with are medical, not surgical.
Shannon Hardy, founder and co-ordinator of Abortion Support Services Atlantic, said she believes more health professionals should prescribe Mifegymiso, but she said a bigger problem for her is a lack of education and understanding about abortion.
While she's pleased the province recently implemented a self-referral line, she believes people need to become more comfortable discussing abortion and treating it as a fact of life instead of a taboo subject.
"It needs to be known that abortion is health care and it's not some dirty little secret," she said.
"If people don't have access to health care, then we don't have universal health care."
Alex Cooke, The Canadian Press