Freezing rain did not stop 60 people from rallying for abortion access and comprehensive reproductive health services outside the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly on Dec. 3 as it sat for the first time to hear the Gallant government’s throne speech.
“We are disappointed to hear that the throne speech did not only not include abortion access, it did not mention health care even once,” says Jessi Taylor with Reproductive Justice NB (RJNB), the group that organized the rally.
Newly elected Liberal Premier Brian Gallant announced on Nov. 26 that accessing a publicly funded abortion in New Brunswick will no longer require two doctors certifying the procedure as “medically necessary” after January 1, 2015.
“Last week’s announcement of the repeal of the abortion restriction found in regulation 84-20 is an important first step in bringing the law of New Brunswick in line with the Constitution, Charter and Canada Health Act, but the Gallant government has so far failed to move swiftly on guaranteeing access to abortion. We are also waiting to confirm if accessing abortion services will involve self-referral or if it will require a doctor’s referral,” says Taylor.
Jessi Taylor, Reproductive Justice NB’s spokesperson speaking at the Reproductive Health Rally
RJNB argues that New Brunswick continues to violate the Canada Health Act by refusing to fund abortion services outside of hospitals as is done in every other province that has clinics. Clinics, considered to be “best practice” for abortion services, are argued to be a more comfortable and confidential environment for those seeking the service.
Currently, only two hospitals in the largely Francophone Vitalité Health Network, the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst and Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont Hospital Centre in Moncton, perform abortion services. No hospitals in the Anglophone Horizon Health Network perform abortion services in New Brunswick, leaving those living in several regions of the province without access to services in their community.
Hey hey, ho ho, 2.01 has got to go!
Inside the Legislature, MLAs heard demonstrators chant: “What do we want? Access. When do we want it? Now” and “Hey hey, ho ho, 2.01 has got to go!”
“We will not stop until we get a repeal of S. 2.01 of the Medical Services Payment that restricts funding of abortion services to hospitals. We will not stop until we get publicly funded reproductive health services across the province and that includes support for midwives, trans health care and other health care that the province is currently denying us,” says Taylor.
As the demonstrators waited for Premier Gallant, Health Minister Victor Boudreau and others to greet them outside, they warmed up with hot chocolate and music from the 1980s, which they say is the decade that New Brunswick is stuck in when it comes to abortion access.
The only party to not go out the front doors of the Legislature and address those raising the abortion issue was the newly elected Liberals. Green Party leader David Coon and NDP leader Dominic Cardy greeted the abortion access activists with support while the Conservatives, the opposition in New Brunswick, welcomed the dozens of anti-choice demonstrators earlier in the day.
Abbie Strout, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor, Maine was planning to attend the rally, but could not because of hazardous road conditions. Allison Webster of RJNB and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada read her speech.
“Since the Morgentaler clinic closed, the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center has seen an increase of abortion clients coming from New Brunswick. We went from seeing one woman from Canada every few months to multiple women per week sometimes making up half of our clinic. While we are happy to see women from New Brunswick and it has been a joy getting know our neighbours in the north, women and trans people should be able to access abortion services in a timely manner in their own communities,” stated Strout.
Strout called for abortion services to be provided without shame, intimidation and additional barriers: “Just as we weren’t able to make the drive today — concerns about weather, the stress of crossing the border and the cost of gas should never be additional barriers for people already dealing with the stress of unplanned pregnancy.”
Daniel Legere, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in New Brunswick, representing 30,000 workers in the public service in the province, backed a women’s right to choose and supported the demands of RJNB for publicly funded and delivered reproductive health services.
The abortion debate is over, noted Ruth Breen, an active member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Fredericton District Labour Council. She noted that reproductive health access is not only a feminist issue, but a working class issue, stressing the need to remove all class barriers to health care.
Freezing rain was not the only reason why many could not attend. The Fredericton Youth Feminists were planning to attend but their dress code walk-out and protest almost two weeks ago resulted in several of their members facing in-school suspension today. Rally goers expressed their support for the Fredericton Youth Feminists in their calls to abolish what they call a sexist and heteronormative dress code at the Fredericton High School and other schools in their district.
Fredericton South MLA David Coon, the only sitting MLA to support the public funding of reproductive health services province-wide was cheered as he left the Legislature to greet the activists. The Green Party Leader called on the Gallant government to repeal 2.01 of the Medical Services Payment Act and fund clinics without delay.
Inside, those in the Legislative gallery heard Gallant’s throne speech say “jobs” over 40 times while health care was not mentioned once.
Luck and privilege does not equal access
RJNB members feel that abortion activists must stop doing what is the government’s job and remain committed to jettisoning Section 2.01.
RJNB organized a crowd-funding campaign earlier this year to have clinical abortion services returned in the province in the wake of the closure of the Morgentaler Clinic, the Maritimes only free-standing private abortion clinic; a goal they hope to achieve in the near future.
The group has also organized a hotline for those seeking information about abortion services and pointed out that telecare, a phone number that New Brunswickers can call to access information about health care, was referring callers to anti-choice organizations.
RJNB members are currently discussing the need to provide funds for those who cannot access a public-funded abortion like guest workers and international students as well as those who must incur expenses beyond the cost of the service like travel, accommodations and child-care support.
The Maine Clinic has also set aside funds for those who cannot afford abortion services and they are extending this support to New Brunswickers.
Strout’s parting words were a call to action:
“When you leave here today and go back to your community, family, work, school, I want you to be brave and talk about abortion access with someone you haven’t talked about abortion with yet. I want you to have open, honest, and personal conversations about why abortion access is so important to you. If you are ready, I want you to tell your story, share your experience with people you care about. These acts will have ripple effects that will begin to change the culture of stigma and shame that surrounds abortion care. And eventually our dream of reproductive freedom — access to abortion care and reproductive health services for all will be a reality.”
RJNB says they are committed to achieving their vision of reproductive justice: when all people can access the health care they need to thrive and decide if, when, and how to have or parent children, with dignity and support.
“Luck and privilege does not equal access,” read one sign.
Tracy Glynn is a member of Reproductive Justice NB’s Political Action Committee and a writer for the NB Media Co-op.
Node image: Amelia Pendelton