In April, when New Brunswick's Morgentaler Clinic announced it would be forced to close, the barriers to accessing abortion in the Maritimes came to national attention. Now, with the New Brunswick election on September 23 and the federal election coming in 2015, reproductive justice activists across Canada are hoping to keep the momentum going for change.
This Saturday, September 20, will mark a National Day of Action for Reproductive Justice, with rallies set for cities across Canada in solidarity with activists in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, who are demanding equal access to a full range of reproductive health care, including abortion.
The current systems in NB and PEI mean a person who needs an abortion is put through a process that is extremely onerous -- financially, logistically and often emotionally.
With the Morgentaler Clinic closed, people who need an abortion in New Brunswick are required to get permission from two doctors before a hospital procedure will be covered. According to the New Brunswick Medical Society, 50,000 people in the province don't have a family doctor. With 16,000 people currently on the government's waiting list for a GP, finding two doctors to approve your procedure is incredibly difficult.
"In New Brunswick, the situation is quite dire because the clinic got closed...they were doing 60 per cent of case load of abortion care in the province. The province is being completely stubborn," says Joyce Arthur, Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, one of the organizers of the Day of Action.
Accessing abortion in Prince Edward Island is also incredibly burdensome. People who need the procedure must get a physician referral to travel to a hospital in Halifax. Even if the procedure ends up being covered, they face lost wages, travel expenses and often childcare expenses to get the care they need.
The PEI government's excuse has been that no physicians were willing to offer abortion services locally, but in May, the National Abortion Federation found three doctors willing to travel to PEI on a regular basis to perform abortions. Even though the NAF presented the province with a cost-neutral plan, Health PEI scuppered the doctors' applications and Premier Robert Ghiz defended the status quo.
Arthur says what's happening in the Maritimes needs to stay on the agenda across Canada: "The Maritimes are sometimes seen as far away out there, but this is a national issue. It's really a crime for any government in Canada to withhold abortion services based on moral reasons."
On the ground in the Maritimes the support from across Canada is key. Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada board member Peggy Cooke used to volunteer as a clinic escort at the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic. She will be speaking at the Day of Action rally in Toronto on Saturday.
"When I was living in New Brunswick and working at the clinic you sometimes feel like you're alone and not a lot of people across the country know what's going on there. Now that people do, it's really important for people in the Maritimes to know people across the country are pulling for them," Cooke says.
Kathleen Pye, another former clinic escort who helped found the new organization Reproductive Justice New Brunwsick, echoed Cooke's comments: "Having the rest of Canada help speak out for a province that doesn't really have a voice has really been a big piece for us," Pye says.
Isaac Williams, an activist who is organizing the rally in Charlottetown, said the Day of Action is important to help get and keep political traction in PEI.
"My hope is to keep the foot on the gas with this. In PEI the government really doesn't really have any reason left to maintain the status quo," Williams says.
Originally coined by Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, the term "reproductive justice" is aimed not just at ensuring the right to choose to have an abortion, but also the right to choose to have a child and the right to raise the children we have in safe and healthy environments. As a concept it is used to highlight the connections between reproductive rights and other human rights and social justice issues, including racial, economic and other forms of inequality.
"All these issues are connected. For me coming from a pro-choice background, abortion is a bedrock issue, but you have to have an equitable society for women to access their reproductive rights," explains Arthur, who will be speaking at the rally in Vancouver along with activists who will address interconnected issues like the lack of access to affordable childcare and health care for trans people.
Cooke says what's happened in the Maritimes highlights why a reproductive justice approach is so necessary:
"I think that the more that access to abortion gets limited, the more reproductive justice means to more people. You can start to see how it's all interconnected…Who is lack of access to health care going to affect most? Well, it's going to affect the people who are already on the margins -- poor people, queer people, people of colour."
"It's not just about abortion; it's about who gets the right to control their own bodies and the resources to do that," Cooke adds.
Rallies are currently set for Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Charlottetown, and multiple locations in New Brunswick (see the Facebook event page for a full list and updates).
If you're unable to make it out to a rally this Saturday there are lots of other things you can do to support and help keep the momentum going:
If you're in New Brunswick, make sure you get out and vote on September 22.
Post messages of support on social media, using hashtags like #NBProChoice. Talk with people you know about what's going on and why it's important.
Write or call elected officials or candidates if you're in new Brunswick.
Cooke adds: "These rallies more than anything else in recent times are important because it's important for people in New Brunswick to see that everybody else cares about it…Keep this issue out front, because it's not going away for people who need abortions."
Jarrah Hodge is the Founder of http://gender-focus.com .
Photo: Kathleen Pye