Canadian provinces failing to provide accessible abortions

By: Megan Lane
Free expression. Security. Freedom of religion. Right to vote. Freedom from discrimination. These are just a few of the rights that exist in Canada. Another is a woman’s right to an abortion.


Free expression. Security. Freedom of religion. Right to vote. Freedom from discrimination. These are just a few of the rights that exist in Canada. Another is a woman’s right to an abortion. But in some areas of the country, women do not have proper access to abortion services.

The rights women have obtained are in great part due to the hard work of abortion activist Henry Morgentaler. Morgentaler passed away early Wednesday morning after spending much of his life fighting to give women across Canada this right, one he believed they deserved.

Although Canadian women have a legal right to abortions, statistics show that abortion accessibility is low in several areas of the country.

In 2011, over 92,000 abortions were performed in Canada. Almost 60,000 of these were in Ontario and Quebec, according to Statistics Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

While the Canada Health Act recognizes abortions as a medically required service — meaning that all provinces and territories must offer and fund abortion services — PEI and New Brunswick, along with some rural areas, have insufficient access to abortion.

Though health care is funded mainly by provincial governments, the federal government has ways of charging provinces that do not meet the standards required by the Canada Health Act for medically required services. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada said that the current federal government has not been doing its part to put pressure on the provinces to improve abortion access.

PEI had no abortions performed in  2011, according to Statistics Canada. In fact, the province has been without abortion services since their two major hospitals merged in 1982.

There is no law that prevents abortion within PEI. Rather when the hospitals merged, not offering abortion services was one of the conditions. According to Statistics Canada, 79 abortions were performed for PEI women that had traveled to another province to receive the procedure.

PEI residents have to pay their own travel expenses to leave the province for an abortion, though the provincial government will pay for the abortion if it is performed in a hospital and is medically necessary.

New Brunswick’s laws say that in order for a woman to receive an abortion, she must provide notes from two doctors stating that the procedure is medically necessary, according to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. The provincial government in New Brunswick is also breaking the Canada Health Act, which is federal law, by refusing to fund abortion services at clinics. Individuals have to pay for their own abortion when choosing to go to a clinic.

New Brunswick performed 414 abortions in hospitals and 642 in clinics in 2011.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to stay out of the abortion debate.

“I think all members of this house, whether they agree with it or not, understand that abortion is legal in Canada,” Prime Minister Harper said. “And this government, myself included, have made it very clear that the government does not intend to change the law in this regard.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeated that he is not willing to reopen the abortion debate, but many politicians and activists do not think that completely suppressing abortion within the House of Commons is the best plan.

“Stephen Harper says one thing, but his members do another,” said Status of Women critic, NDP Niki Ashton. “They have continued the debate in and out of the house.”

Ashton agreed that suppressed debate in the House of Commons means that politicians do not have the chance to discuss areas where abortion access is scarce.

“Men and women together need to make sure their MPs are not turning the clock back on reproductive rights,” Ashton said.“They need to be pushing them to be looking forward at getting better access across the country.”

Rural areas throughout Canada struggle to provide abortion access. The three territories, northern Manitoba, and Labrador all have little or no access to abortions.

The three territories each have at least one hospital that offers abortions and will pay for travel for women that need to go out of province for their abortions, according to an article about provincial access by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.

In Manitoba most abortions are done in Winnipeg, said Naline Rampersad, Press Secretary to Manitoba’s Minister of Health.  This concerns Ashton, the MP for Churchill, as her constituents are hours from abortion access.

Joyce Arthur, the Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, explained that the federal and provincial governments need to work together to achieve proper abortion access across Canada.

“It is unfortunate how politicized abortion has become,” Arthur said. “Since the Harper government got elected, the Health Minister has dropped the New Brunswick abortion argument.”

Arthur said that at this point it would take a brave doctor to go into PEI and ask to work as an abortion doctor.

“The discouragement of abortions is coming from high up in the conservative government,” she said.

The conservative politics of both PEI and New Brunswick are seen as the reason that abortion access is difficult.

“Conservative provinces shouldn’t use that as an excuse,” Ashton said. “Other conservative governed provinces have made abortions accessible.”

Although it has been decreasing, there is still a stigma that surrounds abortions, Arthur said. It has been a very slow process. She said the federal government needs to do a better job at showing provinces that they cannot break laws just because abortions can be a controversial issue.

Although that federal and provincial governments need to share the responsibility to improve access, Ashton said, she doesn’t foresee the current federal government “taking a leading role.”

Former Bloc Quebecois MP Nicole Demers agrees, “When the Supreme Court ruled that it is a women’s choice if she wants an abortion and they should be made accessible, the federal government is responsible for that.”

Both women agree that the Prime Minister has a place to continue to stop the debate for re-criminalization of abortions. “Abortions are an integral part of women’s rights that shouldn’t be up for debate,” Arthur said.

This does not mean that the discussion about abortion access should be completely removed from the House of Commons, Arthur said.  Arthur said that governments should not have the ability to withhold women’s reproductive rights based on where they live.

“If MPs can have free votes in the House of Commons on abortion issues, why can’t women have free chance at their own reproductive decisions?” Arthur said.

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