Abortion services remain out of reach for many women in Canada, according to members of a panel at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, Sunday afternoon.
In recognition of International Women’s Day, the group discussed the barriers that continue to make it difficult for women to access safe abortion services in many provinces.
“Abortion was thoroughly criminalized in Canada until 1988,” said Dalhousie professor Archie Kaiser, who specializes in criminal and mental disability law. “The situation in Canada is not great now, but it’s improved significantly.”
Under the Canada Health Act, abortion is considered a medically necessary procedure, which means it should be funded by provincial health authorities and be equally accessible for women across the country.
Despite the legislation, Kaiser said it is challenging for many Canadian women to access the services they need.
He said the problems vary from province to province. In some parts of the country, few hospitals perform abortions, there are restrictions on medical insurance contributions when they are performed outside of a hospital, and there are few free-standing clinics.
Accessibility in Canada
A recent chart from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada shows some regions are much better equipped than others.
Quebec provides the best access to abortions in the country. It has 31 hospitals and 36 clinics that perform the procedure.
British Columbia is the only province with bubble zones around clinics to ensure women can access the service without being harassed.
“I regret to say that in the Atlantic provinces, there are way fewer providers in our region than there should be,” said Kaiser.
According to statistics from the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, only four per cent of hospitals in New Brunswick, 21 per cent of hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 13 per cent of hospitals in Nova Scotia perform abortions.
One private clinic operates in New Brunswick and another in Newfoundland, but Nova Scotia has none.
There is no access for women in P.E.I., meaning women who need an abortion must travel from the island to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.
Provincial governments fund out-of-province abortions but they do not pay for abortions at private clinics, where the procedure typically costs between $600 and $800.
Accessibility in Halifax
Accessibility issues for women continue to be a problem even in provinces where abortion is available.
Kaleigh Trace, a disabled sex educator, author, and advocate for reproductive justice, lives in Halifax and had an abortion in Nova Scotia in 2011. She has written about it on her blog and spoke about her experience at Sunday’s event.
“I wasn’t unsure of myself. I was ready for it and I had a support system,” said Trace. “But with all of those things in place, it was still incredibly difficult.”
When Trace found out she was pregnant, she went to the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, an organization she had previously worked with, for an abortion referral. She said she was moved to the front of the list because of her connections.
“They bumped me on the list and I got to go in early. I experienced the privilege of knowing the right people and getting in on time.”
Despite that advantage, she found the referral process very frustrating. She was especially discouraged by the system’s need for her to justify her choice repeatedly.
“In abortion narratives we so often hear that someone’s single, young, poor, or disabled. I was all of those things, but those shouldn’t have to justify my choice. I could have made that choice if I was older, if I was married, if I was rich or able-bodied.”
Her experience at the Victoria General Hospital was generally positive, but she also said that the process was, at times, lonely and scary.
“I was grateful for the kindness of the folks who work there, but because they have to protect themselves from the public, I had to be separated from my friends who came as my supporters. I didn’t know how to find them afterwards and you’re left alone at the end.”
Trace had her abortion at the same time that 40 Days For Life, an international group opposed to abortions, was running a campaign in the region. Because there are no bubble-zones in Halifax, there were protesters outside of the hospital on the day of her procedure.
“I think when you grow up experiencing systemic oppression, so if you’re disabled or a woman like I am, you can learn not to be ashamed of the decisions you make when society tells you they’re wrong,” said Trace. “But the force of people’s opposition to abortion is strong and I couldn’t not feel it.”
Trace felt she was better off going through the process than many women. She received a quick referral, lived close to the hospital, and spoke the same language as the doctors. Because of her disability, she was also used to navigating hospitals alone.
“I had all these points of privilege and still it was hard, which I think speaks to how hard it is.”
Accessibility in the future
Trace said she believes education and more open and respectful conversations about women’s bodies could help create changes in the medical system and society’s treatment of abortion.
“If we started getting better sex education at a younger age, I genuinely believe access to abortion would be different and the way we understand women’s rights would be different,” she said.
Kaiser said that the current flaws in the system are dangerous. He is concerned that accessibility could keep getting worse.
“The right to abortion in principle can be taken away by whittling away the access points at many levels,” he said. “Many countries at similar levels of development have seen attacks on the kinds of freedoms that women have won through their hard efforts here in Canada.”
Trace hopes that accessibility to abortion across the country only improves from its current state.
“It’s mind-boggling that if someone has a vulva, they are denied safe and easy access to reproductive justice in Canada. It’s embarrassing that something our grandmothers fought for is still something we are fighting for,” she said.
“Bodily autonomy is a human right. Your body, your choice is not a concept that should not be up for debate.”
The organizers of Sunday’s event, members of the Dalhousie Feminist Legal Association (DFLA) and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), agree with Trace.
LEAF Halifax advocates for the equal rights of women in Canada. It reformed its dormant branch in April 2014 when the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton announced it was closing.
“We wanted to use it as a platform to do action on reproductive justice and a lot has happened over the past year,” said Martha Paynter, LEAF Halifax’s co-chair.
LEAF Halifax tried to help the Morgentaler clinic stay open. When it closed its doors in July, the group helped raise $125 000 to buy the space and open a new private medical centre, Clinic 554, in its place.
“The other thing that happened was the election in New Brunswick,” said Paynter. “The Conservative government fell and I think abortion was a huge election issue. The new Liberal government has started to repeal some of the restrictions the province has had for eons.”
The changes in policy mean women no longer need the permission of two physicians to have a publicly funded procedure in the hospitals in Moncton or Bathurst.
Paynter said her organization and pro-choice advocates should celebrate the victories they have had over the past year, but she still thinks there is work to be done.
“The clinic that operates in Fredericton should be publicly funded and that’s just New Brunswick,” she said.
“There are also major access issues in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and we’re glad people are here to talk about it today.”