Righting the Record About Abortion Funding in NL

After The Telegram published a misleading letter about abortion funding, we spoke to its author about her undisclosed anti-choice activism.
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash.

It was Saturday morning and I was relaxing with a cup of coffee and scrolling through Twitter when I got a message from The Independent Editor-in-Chief Drew Brown. Had I seen the letter to the editor published by The Telegram? He’d sent a link.

As I read, my eyebrows only climbed higher and I could feel my heartbeat quicken in rage.

It was a letter from Colette Fleming of Mount Pearl labelling the Athena Health Clinic—our only private abortion clinic here in Newfoundland and Labrador—a for-profit enterprise and calling for the government to halt funding.

Normally, I don’t like giving oxygen to anti-choicers. It can further spread their arguments, even if you’re refuting them. But this letter contained so much misinformation that, as a reporter, I had to start working. I won’t share the link but if you really want to read it, it’s easy enough to find online.

Fleming wrote: “The Athena Clinic is a for-profit abortion clinic in which patients with an MCP number are fully insured and therefore do not have to pay for abortions. This clinic functions on a fee-for-service model and receives public funds.”

You may be thinking: that’s actually how a family doctor clinic runs. I show up at my family doctor’s office, I show my MCP to her staff, I get to see that doctor without taking out my credit card. MCP gets the bill. And guess what: public funds pay for that. The Athena Health Clinic operates the same way.

Fleming is attempting to frame abortion in her anti-choice monologue as an unjustified expense, that by funding abortion care we are perpetuating our family doctor shortage, or letting businesses die out from lack of financial support. As if we just took the money allocated to abortion, then we’d be in fiscal paradise. 

But we can actually support all of these things—including abortion.

So I got Fleming on the phone to ask about her letter. What followed was an interview that quickly got heated.

The following is a transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview with an Anti-Choice Crusader

I opened up by pointing out that while Fleming painted the Athena Health Clinic as a for-profit clinic in her letter, it in fact operates the same way many other private clinics function. So some people online are saying that’s misleading, because she’s just describing how MCP works, much like my family doctor. Procedures like cataracts are done at private clinics and are covered by MCP. So her assertion that the Athena clinic is “for-profit” has been criticized as blatantly false.

Colette Fleming: Well the abortion clinic, as a for-profit clinic, is quite different in my pro-life view from any other medical procedure. And I don’t think if any other clinic had any problem with their funding that the government would come to their aid as they have to the abortion clinic.

Elizabeth Whitten (The Independent): But the government does fund other clinics, routinely supports other private clinics. MCP covers it, and abortion is a regular part of our health care system.

I have to tell you that from my point of view and from what I expressed in [the letter], I don’t think that the government will be bailing any other clinic or any other business out that failed. And all you have to do is go to malls or to a hair salon—

But this is health care we’re talking about. A clinic is not a hair salon.

Excuse me! Excuse me! They are taking the lives of preborn babies. And you and I as taxpayers are paying for that procedure. And that’s where I have problems.

Then that was not the argument you were making.

I have people who are waiting for eye surgery. I know people who are waiting for heart surgery. I know people where the clinics are closed and the government are not bailing them out and not doing anything to help them in any way. Now I can put you on to a young lady who will certainly address these concerns and these questions—

But I want to address the letter you wrote and you implied— 

Excuse me! You called me!

Yes, because of a letter you wrote.

If you don’t like that letter, that’s fine. If you don’t have a problem with you and me giving an abortion clinic a million dollars a year.

I don’t. It’s MCP covering a health care procedure and it is available through the Health Sciences Centre.

Okay, alright, you just called me and asked me to make comments. I said to you that I have a problem, as a pro-life person, that our govenrment is giving one million dollars to an abortion clinic for the termination of the lives of unborn children.

But that ‘pro life’ point is not the argument you made [in the letter]. You made an economic argument.

I made an economic argument. I addressed the fact that like 200 or 300 babies probably got saved in the times they’re saying that they suffered financially. I don’t think that they suffered financially because their business thrived. It was kept open and everything that it was not afforded to other places. And so therefore I addressed the fact that—and I’m pro-life.

But again, you couched it in economic terms. Funding these clinics for different types of medical procedures, like cataracts, is a normal part of our health care system. And you framed it as something that was an anomaly. But your problem is with abortion in total.

Yes it is, because it terminates the life of an unborn child.

I would argue that as it stands in Canada, people have a right to determine what happens to their bodies and it’s a health care decision funded under MCP.

Is that right? Let me tell you something—is it a medically necessary procedure?

Yes.

I would question that.

It absolutely is. Going through pregnancy is an incredibly risky procedure at times. And it has permanent impacts on the body.

Yes and it also kills that other little body that’s inside you as—

A fetus is not a body. It is a part of mine!

You are the only person that has that ability to procreate another child and to carry another human being in your body—

I understand how biology works. But at a certain point it is not an independent body. It is a fetus or zygote that is attached to me.

Yes, that’s right. And isn’t it wonderful that you as a woman can carry somebody in your body as well.

But shouldn’t it be a choice? If someone does not want to be pregnant is it right to tell them it’s a wonderful process?

You should have probably monitored your sexual activity that leads to the procreation of a child in your body ‘cause that child deserves better than abortion. And—

So are you arguing that a pregnancy is a punishment for sexual activity?

Of course it’s not.

But you just said I should have to live with the consequences of my sexual activity?

You’re aware of my work?

Yes.

You’re aware of the fact that I stand on LeMarchant Road as a witness to the sanctity of all human life, and your life, and my favourite sign is abortion procedures dot com. Now if you want to look at that at tell me that you think it’s alright that that’s used to terminate the lives of these babies in your womb, well that’s fine. And you call me. You look at that particular website, and if you don’t have a problem with that you call me back—

I will not be looking at that website. I look at medical procedures all the time and I don’t get grossed out. And I find it blatantly offensive misinformation that you basically show edited photos.

[laughs] Thank you, if you find it offensive when you show—

I find misinformation offensive. I’m a reporter, I find misinformation offensive and I challenge it when I see it.

I think you should be more understanding and when you’re doing an interview be more polite to people. But that’s fine! And if you have a problem with it that’s fine.

I have an obligation when I hear misinformation to challenge it. That is what a reporter should do.

You drop over on LeMarchant Road and you have a chat. But anyways you’re saying your positions. I’m saying my position. 

But I’m challenging your blatantly incorrect assertion that this is unusual that government funds—

You would not be bailed out by our government to the tune of one million dollars.

Government bailed out plenty of businesses during the pandemic.

You take care and God bless you and I’m glad that you were born.

I was born in ‘89, I was planned, and my parents had a choice on my birth.


The end.

Now that this conversation is done, it’s clear that while Fleming might have wanted to frame her objections in a rational, ‘fiscally responsible’ line of attack, that was a misdirection to smuggle in an argument against abortion being accessible at all.

Anti-Choice Activist Colette Fleming. Photo via Facebook.

Who is Colette Fleming?

Fleming’s letter to the editor really should have contained some context of her affiliation.

As she told me, you can find her on a street corner—you know the one downtown, where a handful of people gather with grotesque signs. They used to congregate near the Athena Health Clinic but they’re not legally allowed to do that anymore after the provincial government brought in a so-called “bubble zone” law in 2016.

The timing of Fleming’s letter is particularly egregious considering what we can see happening across the border in the United States, as Roe v Wade—which stood for close to 50 years—was struck down, allowing conservative states to impose abortion bans.

In its wake, a deluge of heartbreaking cases have come out—just like pro-choice organizatons warned. People are being forced to carry nonviable pregnancies to term. A pregnant 10-year old from Ohio was forced to travel across state lines to Indiana for care. The doctor who performed the procedure has faced targeted harassment for this.

What I find maybe the most upsetting is that Fleming frames abortion like it isn’t health care. Like it doesn’t save lives and improve them—for both parents and children. People are able to care for the children they already have because they were able to have an abortion. Continue education. Have autonomy and control over their bodies that was so hard won. In the not-too-distant past, people had to protest, plead, get arrested, die, so today we could control what happens to our bodies.

And Fleming really wishes we didn’t have that choice. And if you have followed anti-choice circles in this province—the activists who are actively campaigning to make abortion illegal or inaccessible—you’ll know Colette Fleming.

Fleming was once one of the many directors of Winnipeg-based anti-choice group Alliance for Life, which dissolved in May of 2015 for non-compliance. However, it had been around for decades, initially founded in 1972, and had connections to similar groups across the country. It’s unclear when she became a director.

She was also executive director of the local anti-choice organization Elizabeth House Centre For Life. Back in 2004 they had a booth at Memorial University’s student volunteer fair where volunteers handed out plastic fetuses to students. People were outraged and the volunteers were asked to remove the fetuses. They were allowed to stay at the fair, though Fleming wrote a letter to The Muse denouncing their treatment.

If you scroll through Fleming’s Facebook page, you’ll be inundated with anti-choice propaganda and messages.

In 2016, a pro-choice group decided to hold a counter protest against the anti-choice protestors in front of the Athena Health Clinic. Fleming was there and she told CBC she had an issue with the provincial government bringing in a bubble zone law.

This law—which has since come into effect—would prevent anti-choice activists like herself from protesting at the clinic as well as at the homes of clinic workers. It was also kickstarted after claims that the protestors were photographing people at the clinic—a blatant attempt at intimidation.

That same year, Fleming was part of an agreement reached between the Athena Health Clinic—represented by lawyer Lynn Moore—where protestors agreed to a 40 metre buffer zone between protestors and the clinic. Fleming and fellow anti-choice protestor Patrick Hanlon were represented by lawyer Bob Simmonds.

Later that year, the buffer zone was enlarged to 50 metres from the clinic, as well as 160 metres from the residence of a doctor who provides abortions and 10 metres from a doctor’s office.

You also might recall that in 2017 a group of anti-choice protestors gathered at the entrance of Waterford Valley High School on Topsail Road in St. John’s. Around the same time, groups also went near Holy Heart High School and neighbouring Brother Rice Junior High.

Fleming was there.

At the time, she told the CBC that “we have decided that it’s very important that we continue the education on the issue of abortion,” and said the group’s decision to protest outside of the school wasn’t linked to the law prohibiting them from gathering outside of the Athena Health Clinic.

She also told the CBC the buffer zone law wasn’t the reason why they were protesting at the school: “No, we’ve dealt very well with the buffer zone, and with the legislation and we had that clarified. But we did decide that we need to travel around with our message, and that’s what we are doing here today.”

Respectfully, peddling fear mongering about population decline and forced-birth falsehoods isn’t education.

Supporting Families by Funding Services—Not Restricting Abortion

I’ll also address another line in Fleming’s Telegram letter where she cites an interview Athena Health Clinic owner Rolanda Ryan gave the CBC. There, Ryan said the clinic typically performs around 900 abortions a year (that doesn’t account for people electing to go to the Health Science Centre for their abortion. Oddly, Fleming doesn’t mention it, as it doesn’t fit into her line of attack here). In 2021, that number of procedures performed at the clinic dropped by 200 to 300 patients.

And as Ryan mentioned in the CBC article—but Fleming doesn’t bring up—the clinic can do the procedure faster and cheaper than the hospital and also doesn’t take up much needed bed space and operating room space.

Fleming wrote in The Telegram—as she reiterated in her interview—that it could be great if that meant these pregnancies were carried to term, citing concerns around population decline. (I think it’s horrifying that there could be people who didn’t want to be pregnant but were forced to carry to term.)

Fleming also suggested we could pay people to stay pregnant with all that money they’d save by making abortion inaccessible—which would be draconian. I’m for giving people financial support, but Fleming implies they should be bribed to stay pregnant, whether they really want to or not.

There are ways we can support pregnant people who want to be pregnant, as well as their families: providing better parental leave, supporting and expanding health care infrastructure, as well as better child care services. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a parent lament that there aren’t enough day care centres.

Heck, raising the minimum wage and making sure pay keeps in check with inflation would be great for all citizens, whether they have kids or not! And while we’re brainstorming here, what about free post-secondary education?

If we really wanted to support families there are way better policies than forcing them to give birth—with the psychological (and physical) torture that would entail for parent(s) and children.

If you read Fleming’s letter you will notice she hangs her case, seemingly anyway, on economic arguments. That this is about money and limited resources. But she tips her hand at the end, you’ll notice, when she refers to the ”unborn”—a telling turn of phrase.

Even if I was paying out of my own pocket for my abortion, anti-choice activist Colette Fleming still wouldn’t be fine with it. She should have simply said that—and The Telegram should have told us who she is.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

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