Activists continue fight for better access to abortion in New Brunswick

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In April, The Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, New Brunswick -- the only private clinic in New Brunswick to offer abortions -- announced it would be closing due to lack of funding from New Brunswick's provincial government. This prompted a large backlash from abortion rights activists who turned to the public for support, which culminated in numerous articles on reprodutive choice in Canada, protests and a Save the Clinic crowdfunding initiative.

The Morgentaler Clinic used to operate once a week and has provided abortion services to more than 10,000 women. However, the clinic was never profitable said Simone Leibovitch, manager of the clinic.

Though the clinic managed to generate some revenue by charging patients with a fee, the clinic was spending about $10,000/year waiving fees for women who could not afford to pay.

"We ran pro bono fees for women who couldn't afford to pay for an abortion… so the clinic has been running in a deficit position," says Leibovitch. "It's kind of obvious," Leibovitch continues, "that one couldn't do that forever."

The Save the Clinic crowdfunding initiative was launched to reopen the clinic and, with a deadline of July 31, the fundraiser has already surpassed the $100,000 mark. The money gathered from the Save the Clinic initiative will be used to pay off the lease of the clinic's current medical building.

The crowdfunding initiative's goal is to replace the former one-day-a-week model with a more financially stable one, said Kathleen Pye, chair of Reproductive Justice NB, the group that launched the online crowdfunding drive.

The new sustainable model, Pye said, would develop a comprehensive health centre staffed by pro-choice specialists that would include abortions as part of their services. "We are looking for pro-choice heath specialists that can potentially come in and have health services and have abortion be part of that," Pye said. Because of the lack of government funding, Pye added, it is hard to sustain a clinic that only provides abortion procedures.

There are two hospitals in New Brunswick that currently provide abortion services, says Leibovitch, but 60 per cent of the abortion procedures done in the province occur at the Morgentaler Clinic. "So if this clinic closes that means the two remaining hospitals need to take up the slack and it's doubtful that they would be able to," said Leibovitch.

The Morgentaler Clinic not only fills this gap in abortion service, but also allows women to exercise their reproductive rights outside of New Brunswick's restrictive referral and regulation system. "Without the clinic there isn't a whole lot of places to go here, we know that the hospital system with the regulations make it really difficult," Pye said.

The Medical Services Payment Act states that in order for a woman to have a publicly funded abortion, she must have it deemed "medically necessary" by two doctors. Also, medicare will only pay for an abortion if it is performed in hospital by a gynaecologist.

"In a perfect world we would overturn the regulations and then get funding for the clinic as it is," Pye added. "We're essentially trying to do the government's job."

If the crowdfunding initiative had not been able to reach it $100,000 mark, all money raised would have gone towards efforts to overturn the Medical Services Payment Act.

Both Pye and Leibovitch stated that they are hoping the act is repealed. Pye added that the crowdfunding initiative also managed to shine a light on New Brunswick's policy. "We received national attention," she explained, "Which just kind of exploded and it's been an amazing thing." More attention was brought to the issue on July 18 after protesters in Fredericton demanded that the government improve access to abortion in the province.

On July 29, a protest organized by Voice for Choice was also held in St. Johns outside Athena Health Centre. The group said that the clinic's closure was largely the fault of the provincial government's regulations, which they argue restrict public funding for abortions in the province. The group also noted that the closure would make the Athena clinic the only dedicated abortion provider east of Montreal.

The government of New Brunswick, however, has continued to stand by its regulations. "Access to this medical service is still available in our province. Women will continue to have access to medically necessary abortions in the province with the approval of two physicians," said Sarah Bustard communication officer for New Brunswick's Ministry of Health. 

Pye argued that women have a right to better abortion services in the province. She added, "The problem is that you still have to pay for something you shouldn't have to pay for and that access is still difficult because people in the province shouldn't have to go through this crazy system to get access to something that they are mandated to have."

Want to help the Morgentaler Clinic? Donate to the fundraiser if you can and check out the website for more information on reproductive rights in New Brunswick.

Miriam Katawazi is a fourth-year journalism and human rights student at Carleton University and rabble's news intern. She has a strong passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, labour, education and human rights beats. 

Photo: Eyton Z/Flickr

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