Pro-choice advocates file legal challenge to demand access to abortion in P.E.I.

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After decades of struggle to bring abortion access back to Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.), Abortion Access Now (AAN) PEI has taken the matter into its own hands and advised the provincial government that it will file a legal challenge against the province's discriminatory abortion policy.

AAN PEI is seeking full and unrestricted access to on-island, publicly funded abortion services for people in the province.

Currently, P.E.I. is the only province in Canada that does not provide safe, legal access to abortion. Residents seeking abortions must obtain a referral from a local doctor and travel off-island to complete the procedure in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

The province has been dubbed a "Life Sanctuary" by anti-abortion groups since 1982 when the P.E.I. government removed funding for abortions from hospitals and the Therapeutic Abortion Committee.

The current P.E.I. government says that it is "moving forward with its commitment to address barriers to abortion access," however, this has yet to happen.

"We've been continually underwhelmed and disappointed at the way that our government leadership treats women's health," says AAN PEI representative and long-serving pro-choice advocate, Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie. "It's a pattern where they only do the least amount they can do to quiet us."

Currently, the "least amount" includes posting information on Health PEI's website for how women can access abortions in other provinces -- a resource that has only been available since 2011.

The province also covers the cost of the procedure in New Brunswick or Nova Scotia, but they do not take into consideration the costs associated with time off of work, child care or travel, such as the $46 toll fee into New Brunswick.

"For young women, for marginalized women, those costs are prohibitive," says Kim Stanton, Legal Director at Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

In fact, AAN PEI suggests that these restrictions turn this into a class issue. After all, if a woman lives in a position of privilege, then taking extended time off of work and paying the costs of travelling to another province might not be significant. For others, however, it can feel like an impossible hurdle to accessing the health care they need.

Chillingly, as a result of these cost and access barriers, MacQuarrie notes that some of her research has shown what lengths women will go to in moments of desperation including trying to induce their own abortions at home.

"Women would consider and do things they wouldn't normally do when they had no other option," she explains. "Our human rights should not be at the whim of our privilege."

LEAF is supporting AAN PEI through the legal process by providing litigation support, research, medical advice and financial assistance. They have also helped AAN develop their legal challenge, identifying two key areas worth addressing.

Firstly, the challenge will contain a constitutional argument, suggesting that P.E.I.'s lack of abortion access violates the right of P.E.I. residents to equal access to health-care services as outlined in the Charter. Stanton notes that the province's policy discriminates on the basis of sex and pregnancy while violating the right to exercise control over one's own body.

AAN PEI's challenge will also include an argument based on administrative law on the basis that the government of P.E.I.'s health-care system contradicts its own health plan's principles of equity and efficiency.

As an example, Stanton points to an instance from 2014, when a doctor from Nova Scotia was willing to fly to Charlottetown multiple times per month to perform abortions. Health PEI developed a business case to determine whether this was a viable option, and found that it would be extremely cost-effective -- even to the point of saving the province up to $37,000 annually.

In spite of this compelling research, the Liberal provincial government under former Premier Robert Ghiz stepped in and put a stop to the proposal.

Anti-choice group PEI Right to Life Association has also challenged the right to abortion in P.E.I. and AAN PEI's legal challenge stating that "there is no constitutional right to abortion in Canada" and that P.E.I. is "in line with the Canada Health Act to determine which services are funded publicly and by what means."

"The only reason we do not have access to safe, surgical abortion is a political one," says MacQuarrie. "It has nothing to do with economics or health or legalities."

After years of research on the effects of a lack of access to safe abortion, MacQuarrie comments that one of the most significant outcomes she has seen as a result of the province's decision is the overall sentiment towards women's health in the province.

"There's a cultural pall, a cultural chill over women's reproductive care here," she says. "The silence and the stigma associated with this very basic, primary health care is phenomenal. That impacts all of us, really. It sends a message that abortion is illegal and it's not -- abortion is a legal procedure."

In fact, abortion has been a legal procedure in Canada since 1988. Yet in spite of this, AAN PEI feels it needs to bring its government to court if it hopes to see this reality come to fruition.

As of Tuesday, January 5, AAN PEI has informed the provincial government of their intended challenge. Now, they must wait 90 days and if they don't receive a response, turn to court proceedings.


Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She is now rabble's News Intern.

Photo: flickr/ Jenn Farr

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