March 31, 2016 – Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News
Prince Edward Island will no longer be the only province in Canada where you can’t get an abortion.
The province caved to decades of pressure — most recently in the form of a threatened lawsuit that would have been filed Monday, April 4 — to provide abortions on the island.
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“Based on legal advice that current policies regarding access to in-province abortion services would likely be in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, government determined that the most responsible approach is to revise the policy rather than embark on a long and costly court case,” Premier and Minister of Justice Wade MacLauchlan said in a statement.
“We recognize that Islanders, including Members of the Legislative Assembly, have strong personal beliefs on this issue; we also recognize our obligation to provide timely and professional health care, without discrimination.”
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The province has said the new reproductive health centre, which will also offer counselling and other reproductive health services, will be up and running by the end of this year.
“Public policy must be reassessed and revised to ensure it stands the test of time,” PEI’s Status of Women Minister Paula Biggar said in a statement.
“The decision we’re announcing today means that we will offer timely access to frontline services that align with women’s equality rights.”
Thursday’s announcement is a victory for Abortion Access Now PEI, whichannounced in January its plans to sue the provincial government over the lack of access.
“It’s amazing. It’s very, very good news,” said Ann Wheatley, co-chair of the group.
“It’s really a testament to all the amazing work, the hard work, that activists for the last 30 years have been putting into this.”
Provider patchwork: How abortion access varies across Canada
It’s been a long time coming: While a Supreme Court ruling in 1988 said the government can’t impede a woman’s access to an abortion, there’s never been a law explicitly requiring it to be made accessible.
Access varies between jurisdictions, but PEI has been the only province where you can’t get one, period.
The province only recently began to cover some of the cost of abortions PEI residents obtained in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.
But having on-island care is a big deal, Wheatley said.
“There has been a policy disallowing abortions. That in itself sends a very clear message to women that there’s something wrong with that procedure. It actually promotes stigma and shame,” she said.
“This was about the constitutional rights of women and about access to good, high-quality health care.”
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed the news Thursday.
“The Government of Canada reaffirms its belief that a woman should have access to reproductive health services, no matter where they live in our country,” he said in a statement. (He also tweeted his support)
It’s welcome news for the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, which was helping with the lawsuit.
“This is the government recognizing that they would not be able to win that suit. So it’s very welcome news,” said the group’s legal director Kim Stanton.
“We expect that it will result in full local access to abortion in short order.”
As Global News has written, disparities in abortion access extend well beyond Prince Edward Island. Women in rural Canada, for example, face significant barriers to accessing reproductive care — and they often pay thousands of dollars and travel thousands of kilometres in the process.
Health Minister Jane Philpott has admitted abortion access is “patchy” and said she wants to improve access to reproductive care in Canada, and she’s talking to provincial health ministers about how to do that.
“Sometimes reproductive health services are not equally accessible in all parts of the country,” she told Global News in an interview last month.
In a brief interview with Global News earlier Thursday, Philpott said she was “optimistic” PEI would improve access to reproductive care, negating the need for a lawsuit or for more punitive measures from the federal government.
“It’s my obligation as federal Minister of Health to make sure that all Canadians have access to medically necessary care,” she said.
“We want to make sure abortion services are available across the country.”
LEAF legal director Kim Stanton says she still has plenty of work to do.
“There are other provinces where geography plays a big role, and where unwillingness to provide effective referrals plays a role, and lack of people with the requisite training creates barriers to access. In new Brunswick there are still regulatory barriers in place that are problematic.
“It’s hard to say which one should be tackled next.”