The Guardian published a letter to the editor I co-authored with Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie, about the current status of abortion care access in Prince Edward Island in New Brunswick, Canada:
P.E.I.’s current policy of forcing women to travel out of province to obtain the abortion care they need is fraught with barriers, which actually harm women. Women’s groups in P.E.I. have been fighting to change this inequitable policy, and last year Health P.E.I. formed a working group to develop a proposal to establish a termination service in P.E.I. However, even though this plan would benefit women in P.E.I., save money for the province, and correct a long-standing unjust policy, it has not moved forward.
This week, Premier Robert Ghiz said in a statement that the, “Government has indicated that there is no desire to broaden the current abortion services; therefore, it would not make sense for Health P.E.I. to put resources into a proposal that is not in line with government policy.”
But the current “government policy” on abortion is unjustifiable. It not only harms women, it flies in the face of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically sections 2 (freedom of conscience) and 7 (protection of life, liberty, and security). Since 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that access to abortion is fundamental to women’s right to health and to health care, and protected by the Charter.
P.E.I. is the only province where abortion care is not provided in-province. In order for Island women to obtain a publicly-funded abortion, they must first get a doctor’s referral and travel to a hospital in Halifax, which more than 100 women did last year. And even though the province may pay for the physician and hospital costs for women traveling to Halifax, it doesn’t pay for other costs such as travel expenses, child care, and lost wages. These additional costs can present major barriers for women in P.E.I. and would be lowered or eliminated completely if abortion care was available on the Island.
Additionally, another 50 or so women traveled to Fredericton last year and paid out-of-pocket for their care at a private clinic, often because the wait was too long in Halifax or they were unable to obtain a referral. However, this clinic is closing in July due to lack of funding, and this will further stress the health care system and negatively impact women in both Halifax and P.E.I.
Contrary to recent statements by Premier Ghiz, the status quo is not working for these women who have to travel out of province to access medical care that would be available locally if they lived in any other province in the country.
Ghiz has also compared abortion to other medical procedures that Islanders must travel to obtain. However, these are generally services that are done by specialists that couldn’t be supported in a small community, which is not the case for abortion care. Abortion is one of the safest and most commonly provided medical procedures in Canada. P.E.I. has always had the facilities, equipment, skills, and resources to provide abortion care and there is no credible reason why this simple 10 minute procedure is not offered locally—indeed it was up until 1986. The proposal developed by Health P.E.I. would use existing hospital facilities and the National Abortion Federation has identified at least three physicians who are willing to come to P.E.I. to provide the care.
Resource allocation decisions like this that carry health risks need to be based on evidence. And there is no scientific evidence that forcing women to travel improves their health. In fact, research from UPEI shows that restricted access to abortion care promotes unsafe abortion. Some women in P.E.I. have attempted dangerous methods to try to induce an abortion when they haven’t been able to navigate the barriers to obtain one out of province.
Restricting women’s access to abortion care doesn’t make the need disappear. Abortion is a present and enduring part of Island women’s medical needs. Without access to local safe surgical abortion options, women’s safety and health are at risk.
For too many years, we have been told that abortions aren’t available in P.E.I. because there isn’t a doctor willing to provide this care or that it would be too expensive. But that simply is no longer true.
It’s time the provincial government comes into compliance with the law, and ensures that women have local access to this constitutionally protected and medically necessary care. Women in P.E.I. deserve the same care and respect as women in other provinces when it comes to their ability to access the abortion care they need.
*Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at UPEI.