Abortion access on the agenda

It’s about time government took proactive measures to fulfill its obligations around reproductive health

The newly elected Liberal government in New Brunswick made headlines last week by removing archaic barriers to accessing abortions in that province, fulfilling an election commitment to review and act on the state of abortion access.

Premier Brian Gallant announced that the much-maligned regulation requiring women to obtain the signed permission of two doctors before pursuing an abortion—which has been in place for the past couple of decades, but is essentially a lingering holdover from the pre-Morgentaler, mid-20th century era—would be removed, rendering it easier for women who desire abortions to access them.

New Brunswick’s abortion access also made headlines last year when the province’s only privately operated Morgentaler clinic closed due to lack of funding.

This widely praised move by the new Liberal government—coupled with the fact that abortion access became a key election issue in that province—has focused attention on the issue outside of New Brunswick as well.

Newfoundland and Labrador has come under scrutiny in recent years over its poor, and deteriorating, record when it comes to abortion access. Abortions are only performed in two facilities in the province—both of them in St. John’s—and there is only one private clinic in the province (the Athena Health Centre, formerly a Morgentaler clinic).

The key problem, of course, is that this deprives women outside the St. John’s area of reasonable access to abortion. Women seeking abortions from outside of St. John’s have to factor in the added cost, in addition to problems posed by transportation, obtaining time off work, lost wages, and related inconveniences. Furthermore, for those who want to maintain confidentiality around their decision, it becomes more difficult when a costly and time-consuming journey across the province is required. This doesn’t even consider the problems faced by younger women who may still live at home with family that they don’t wish to involve in their private lives and personal decisions.

Positive signs

Deputy Premier Steve Kent’s recent comments on the topic in response to questions from media are promising, and progressive. He indicated the province was open to responding to requests from physicians to offer therapeutic abortions in other areas of the province, but said the problem was they haven’t yet received any such requests.

This is a good sign, but it’s not enough for the province to sit back and wait for physicians to make proposals on how to make reproductive health accessible throughout the province. Health care is a provincial jurisdiction and abortion is a key and central plank of reproductive health. The province needs to be taking a proactive approach to education, access and provision of abortion (and other reproductive health) services in all major regions of the province (including, particularly, Labrador).

The province has been cited before for its lack of reproductive health services—particularly abortion—outside of St. John’s. The province needs to be the one taking the proactive steps to address this, not sitting back and waiting for somebody else to do so.

Changing attitudes

In a related story, the owner and operator of the private Athena Health Centre revealed an appalling fact: even health care workers are pursuing abortions at private clinics rather than in the hospitals where they work.

This is due, she said, to health care workers’ fears that their abortions might be leaked into the public domain; a perhaps not unpredictable concern given several recent high-profile leaks of personal medical records in the province.

Yet what’s most troubling here, apart from the leaks themselves, is that people in this day and age would still be embarrassed about the act of obtaining an abortion. It’s the second decade of the 21st century, and abortion ought to be treated as a regular part of everyday reproductive health.

Abortion is central to women’s ability to freely pursue both fulfilling careers as well as personal sexuality, and the notion that there’s anything wrong with an abortion ought to have gone out the door at the same time that regressive federal laws did.

The fact it has not indicates a problem not only around access to abortion, but also around education. The province and its schools need to proactively tackle this issue as well. A greater effort needs to be made to ensure that the public—particularly young people and students, as well as health care workers—are trained to understand that abortion is a regularized aspect of modern sexual and reproductive lives. Health care workers and teachers who are unable or unwilling to teach about or provide abortions in a supportive and non-judgemental fashion should not be employed in either field.

Katha Pollitt, the prolific American writer and journalist, emphasizes the importance of all this in her recent book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, released earlier this fall. She says it’s time to stop tip-toeing around the small, albeit disproportionately vocal, minority who are still anti-abortion in this day and age.

Abortion is a key foundation of modern life, and there ought to be no hesitation in acknowledging this and figuring out how to ensure and improve access. It’s incumbent on society, she writes,

to present a positive message about what birth control has done, not just for women’s physical health but for sex, love, marriage, and family life… the ability to limit the timing and number of children undergirds the modern ideal of egalitarian, intimate marriages based on love, companionship, and mutual sexual delight. It makes for marriages that are less rigidly role-bound and more democratic – and better for children, who get more parental attention and more resources… Since birth control is far from perfect, legal abortion is essential to this way of life.

It’s time, in other words, to stop treating abortion as a ‘debate’, and to put an end to the myth there are ‘two sides’. There are not. While people are free to make any decisions they want about their personal lives, our society has made a choice and moved on: abortion is fine, it’s a basic medical procedure, and it must be legal and accessible.

 The province needs to be taking a proactive approach to education, access and provision of abortion (and other reproductive health) services in all major regions of the province.

Improving access to abortion became a key requirement for success in New Brunswick’s recent election. It’s time for it to also become such in this province. With a provincial election approaching next year, the Progressive Conservatives have already signaled that they acknowledge the problem and are willing to act on it. Yet their vague support on the issue still leaves a great deal to be desired.

It’s time to hear a clear and well-defined plan for improving access to abortion across the island and in Labrador, and it’s time to hear how education around reproductive rights and choices will be improved as well.

A task force comprised of key stakeholders—private clinic operators, Planned Parenthood, the province’s health boards and school boards—could be established to advise and assist government in this process.

Either way, the PCs have opened the discussion, and good on them for doing so. It’s also time now to hear what the other political parties are willing to offer to this conversation. Access to reproductive health services in the province has slid dramatically in recent years, and it’s time to finally turn that around.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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