Health

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Pregnant women in New Brunswick forced to become medical refugees
Photo: Steenaire

I never thought we’d see the day when Americans would provide affordable health care to Canadians.

Yet since this summer’s closure of New Brunswick’s only abortion clinic, a new class of medical refugees from the Maritimes has caused an upswing of demand at Maine’s clinics. There, abortion providers are willing to subsidize Canadian women’s abortions when they cannot afford the $500 fee. The US providers are also urging the New Brunswick government to rectify the situation.

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New Brunswick is home to Canada’s most backwards abortion regulations thanks to the province’s Medical Services Payment Act. Regulation 84-20 requires two doctors to confirm that an abortion is “medically required,” and further stipulates that abortions must be performed in a hospital. Section 2.01 prohibits government funding of “entitled services furnished in a private hospital facility.”

In short, if someone cannot (or does not wish to) obtain a statement from two doctors asserting that an abortion is “medically required,” they will pay for it out of pocket — and now, out of province.

The Morgentaler Supreme Court decision of 1988 ruled that restrictions such as these are unconstitutional because they violate women’s rights. These regulations also violate the Canada Health Act, which mandates full funding of abortions at both clinics and hospitals.

The leader of New Brunswick’s recently elected Liberal majority government, Brian Gallant, promised a speedy removal of these alarming infringements on the right to reproductive health and autonomy, but New Brunswick reproductive rights advocates are skeptical. As a quirky and keen reminder of his unfulfilled promise, Reproductive Justice New Brunswick has issued a timer that tracks his inaction. We’re at two weeks and counting.

Understandably, the young politician is still settling into his new position. What is not in any way comprehensible is that he now deems it necessary to review the regulations rather than remove them as promised. His officials are reportedly collecting names of doctors and human-rights experts who may serve on a committee to determine how to make it easier to access abortion services in the province.

I would not be surprised if these experts indicate that having at least one abortion clinic in the province would be a sterling first step. I’m also willing to bet that they echo every reproductive rights and health expert of the last 25 years by insisting that these barbaric and paternalistic barriers to safe and affordable abortions be lifted immediately.

Safe and affordable access to abortion is not rocket science, but it is urgent.

Gallant’s stalling tactic disproportionately affects women with low incomes. It is not the woman with a disability, the woman on welfare without a passport, or the single woman with three children who is able to drive herself down to Maine. Where accessible health care leaves off, improvisation begins. One can find online information about the dosages and purchase of misoprostol and mifepristone, two drugs used to induce miscarriage. Sounds like a bad idea to administer an at-home abortion? For some women, it seems like their best or only option, besides eventually giving birth to a child they cannot provide for.

The women who make it to Maine are in fact the lucky ones in this unacceptable failure to provide women with health care and options.

Birth control is also stratified by income, which contributes to the unequal representation of low-income women among those needing affordable access to abortion. The most effective birth control and back-up birth control measures are also the most demanding in terms of money and time. An intrauterine device or IUD costs $400 if it’s not covered by insurance as well as three trips to the doctor; it’s not an intuitive choice for someone working full-time just to make ends meet.

The cost of an out-of-province abortion ($400 to $1000 depending on where it is performed and how late in the pregnancy), including time off work, childcare (most women who undergo abortion are already mothers), transportation, and accommodation costs, is piled onto an already burdened woman’s shoulders. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The longer it takes her to get the resources together, the further along her pregnancy gets, and the more expensive, invasive, and time-consuming the abortion becomes. It should come as no surprise if, cornered into this predicament, a woman takes the matter into her own hands.

Henry Morgentaler, a holocaust survivor and champion of women’s reproductive rights, was using his own money to perform abortions for disadvantaged women in his Fredericton clinic, but when he died last year the clinic lost its financial cushion. As the only private clinic in the Maritimes, it provided 60 per cent of all New Brunswick abortions and also served residents from PEI, a province with no abortion services whatsoever. In the absence of any amount of provincial funding, the clinic was forced to close its doors last July. Morgentaler’s death occurred before his lawsuit concerning the province of New Brunswick’s neglect could be heard in court. It is shameful that the New Brunswick government sat back and watched as one man attempted to compensate for the province’s lack of commitment to reproductive rights.

Now that man is gone. The situation has been dire for decades, Harper will do nothing and New Brunswick has been promised change. Yet Gallant wants to study the issue further. Current regulations fall outside provincial legislative powers, as well as breach the Canada Health Act, several Supreme Court rulings and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Gallant is content to hem and haw, posturing himself as caring so much about the issue that he simply cannot act on it right away.

For a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, each day on that timer counts. We can speak up in solidarity with the women of the Maritimes and remind Gallant of his promise by emailing him about our concerns. There’s no need for a committee to detail the ins and outs of this issue, because there is no new information to uncover. Free and safe abortions protect reproductive agency, prevent unsafe abortions and are our right.

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