PEI: An island without safe legal abortion

Photo: flickr/Robert Couse-Baker

When Health Minister Doug Currie was found to have called off the Health PEI working group that would have established a regular abortion clinic at a PEI hospital, it became incontrivertibly clear that political interference is the only reason PEI remains the only province in Canada to not offer in-province access to safe, legal abortion.

Islanders seeking abortion must find a pro-choice doctor willing to give a referral to the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax and navigate the red tape of waiting for blood tests and an ultrasound, before finally travelling to Halifax for their appointment. This process must be completed within 16 gestational weeks.

Abortion was performed on a limited basis in PEI until 1982. A "Therapeutic Abortion Committee" would occasionally approve a woman's request for an abortion at the Prince County Hospital in the City of Summerside.

Due to pressure from anti-abortion groups, these approvals ended, and the committee was disbanded in 1986.

In 1988, the historic Morgentaler decision struck down Canada's laws restricting abortion. However, then Premier Joe Ghiz's Liberal government passed and signed a resolution urging the Federal government to pass new laws outlawing abortion.

Anti-abortion groups then labelled PEI a "Life Sanctuary" and have dominated the public discourse, creating a culture of silence surrounding abortion in PEI.

This silence was broken in 2011 following the community-based participatory research of Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie, an associate Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. Dr. MacQuarrie's research was an inquiry into the impact of restricted access to abortion in PEI and it served as the catalyst for the resurgence of pro-choice activism in the province.

Since then a variety of groups, organizations and individuals have participated in advocacy and education for abortion rights in the province, lobbying the provincial Health Minister and Premier Ghiz for in-province access to abortion.

However, PEI's Liberal government has avoided public comment on the subject when at all possible. 

When questioned on the subject by the media, Premier Ghiz has maintained that "We pay for the service in hospitals in other provinces and we are going to continue along with that status quo."

Minister Currie routinely refuses to comment on the subject, beyond statements that "Government is meeting its obligations to offer abortion services on a regional basis, similar to the same way we offer other health services, such as cardiac rehab, vascular and pediatric services." 

Despite her role, Valerie Docherty, the Minister responsible for the Status of Women, has not spoken in favour of in-province access to legal, safe abortion.

It is true that some medical procedures are not performed in PEI's struggling health care system due to lack of required expertise and equipment. Abortion, however, does not fall into this category. Leaked documents and an Access to Information Request indicate that it is solely political interference from the Minister of Health that has stopped abortion provision in the province.

Health PEI, which manages PEI's health care services, prepared a promising a business case to hold a regular abortion clinic in Charlottetown's Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Several doctors willing to provide the service were involved, including doctors from PEI and from other Maritime provinces. The proposed program would have saved the PEI health care system $37,000 each year, as well as hundreds of dollars out of the pocket of each woman who had to travel to receive care.

According to documents obtained by CBC's Laura Chapin, the program was stopped when Dr. Wedge, the CEO of Health PEI, received a phone call from Minister Currie, telling him to stop the process.

Dr. Wedge stated that "There's a policy in government that says abortions will not be done on Prince Edward Island. And we follow the policy. As the CEO of Health PEI, we are required by law to follow government policy."

The provincial government, however, has been unable to provide any written policy restricting abortion care, and Dr. Wedge's statements are in stark contrast to his previous public statements. 

In 2011 it announced that: 

"If a physician applied for privileges to do abortions on PEI, and they had the skills, the training necessary to do it, then they could get privileges for that on PEI. . . The Supreme Court has said that access to legal abortions is a medically necessary service. So you can't legislate against it, because the Supreme Court would just strike it down … If someone has the skills to provide a medically necessary service, then what basis would you have to deny it?"

Minister Currie has declined to comment on the issue, or elaborate on the policy he cited when he called an end to Health PEI's Business Case.

On October 21, CBC was denied entrance to a cabinet meeting for the first time, because Minister Currie did not want to answer questions about this issue. The silence from elected representatives, however, is not limited to the governing liberals -- even the Progressive Conservative opposition MLA's refuse to comment on abortion.

In the past four years the pro-choice movement on PEI has made an effort to educate policy makers and the public about the harmful impact of PEI's restriction on abortion services.

Most notably, Dr. MacQuarrie's research offers damning evidence regarding the effects of restricting access to abortion for PEI women:

"Our research project showed that women's health is harmed by the barriers to access and the harms were not distributed equally... poorer women, women with few supports, and younger women cited numerous and grave impacts on their health from the restrictions on access to safe abortion services. The overall effect of the layers of restrictions is to create the conditions for harm. In some cases self induction strategies were used as a desperate attempt to self terminate. All women in the project expressed concern with how their health had been impacted by the lack of access to safe abortions.”

McQuarrie's findings, first-person accounts of barriers and information on the challenges have been disseminated through traditional media, through academic papers, and through direct communication with policy makers. Despite this, elected representatives directly responsible for these portfolios have demonstrated complete ignorance of even the basics elements of PEI's abortion provision.

The pro-choice movement in PEI has demanded the resignation of Minister Currie, as well as upfront information about the illusive policy. Legal action in the form of a human rights complaint or a judicial review is being discussed.

The closure of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, New Brunswick in July 2014, has further reduced the options. Until recently this clinic provided about 50 per cent of women from PEI with abortion care, but required paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket on top of travel expenses.

Although expensive, the loss of the clinic is devastating as it offered confidential, timely service, and would sometimes work with pro-choice activists in PEI to offset costs and raise money for cash strapped women.

In the mean time, PEI activists continue to field calls from desperate Islanders fighting against the constraints of time and money to navigate the referral process and out of province travel. 

 

Josie Baker is a queer activist in and community educator who's work includes reproductive justice, migrant worker rights, and food sovereignty in Prince Edward Island. She is a member of Cooper Institute, and the PEI representative on the Board of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

Photo: flickr/Robert Couse-Baker

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