Try to have a conversation in New Brunswick about abortion and you’ll likely get a look that’s equal parts classic East Coast politeness and blank-eyed stare. That’s despite the widespread marches for rights after the ghastly restrictions passed in Texas, a private member’s bill looking to restrict access here in Canada over the summer, and the well-known issues in the region around access to abortion services. Stigma around uterus-bearing people making their own bodily choices is high. Provincial politicians, who are responsible for healthcare, regularly stonewall journalists, activists, and healthcare providers with questions about why access is so poor, with the premier blocking advocates on Twitter.
To make things worse, Adrian Edgar, the only doctor in New Brunswick providing clinic-based abortions, was also shut out of mainstream discussions and funding around healthcare. His Fredericton clinic, Clinic 554, which specialized in LGBTQ2S+ healthcare and abortion services, went up for sale in 2019 due to lack of funding and closed a year later. Now, abortions can only be had in hospitals in two cities in the province, even though 75% of the population lives outside of these areas. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada where clinic-based abortions are not covered by the province.
While the province may not want to talk about abortion, for federal politicians, this should be a priority. These issues affect not only New Brunswickers, but people across the country. In larger Canadian cities, abortions are generally available. But in smaller cities and towns, and in rural areas, access can be all but impossible. In Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, abortions are only offered in cities, but 35 to 40% of people live outside of urban areas. The Yukon and Northwest Territories have one provider each, and in the Atlantic provinces, many people live far away from the few hospitals and clinics that provide the service.
Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made promises for better access in the past, the situation has only worsened especially because of COVID. Now is his chance to make amends and act on his campaign promises during the recent federal election, when he pledged, once again, to improve abortion access in Canada.
Though Trudeau has made promises for better access in the past, the situation has only worsened especially because of COVID. Now is his chance to make amends and act on his campaign promises.
Ahead of this third term in office, his suggested fix was more specific than it’s ever been: amend the Health Act such that it’s clearer that abortion needs to be covered and available no matter where someone lives, and spend $10 million to create an online educational platform informing people about sexual and reproductive health in general. This would include a myth-busting section about abortion. Alongside all of this, Trudeau also said his government would remove charitable status for any new faux women’s health clinics, often labelled pregnancy crisis centres, which aim to talk people out of abortion under the guise of operating as a judgment-free clinic.
Tasia Alexopoulos, a New Brunswick-based spokesperson with the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, isn't convinced the government will come through. “They made a lot of promises during the last election that were not kept. While we are hopeful that this time will be different, we aren't necessarily optimistic.”
Prior to the 2015 election, Trudeau made it clear that anyone wanting to run as a Liberal needed to be pro choice (though the same rules didn’t apply to MPs currently sitting). And during the 2019 campaign period, he promised to make New Brunswick comply with the Canada Health Act, which includes abortion in its list of essential care to be offered by the provinces. He said he’d sit Premier Blaine Higgs down and explain the concept of abortion as healthcare, and make sure New Brunswickers had access to safe, clinic-based abortions.
So far, that hasn't happened. The government did revoke $140,000 in federal health transfer funding this year as a kind of punishment to the province for not providing care. It also gave $366,000 to the University of New Brunswick for research into the access gap and Clinic 554. (Advocates say this money could be better used to support clinic-based abortions directly.)
A senior official with the Liberals said its next steps are to consult with women’s organizations and healthcare providers to determine what’s needed to provide reasonable access. In the coming months, policymakers will look at the distance between clinics in Canada, the size of the population in those areas, how long it takes to travel to clinics, and other factors to determine how the Health Act will need to change.
The official, who spoke on background, said there was no way to know how long this would take, and couldn’t give a deadline for when the changes would be implemented. A Liberal Party spokesperson reiterated that the party “will always stand up for a woman’s right to choose.”
People need to exert pressure on the government to keep their election promises.
Tasia Alexopoulos from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada
While it seems, then, that nobody wants to talk about abortion, there’s a small, focused and growing group of activists who have been behind this push for decades. Government has clearly heard their calls. Now, Alexopoulos says, it’s incumbent on others who care about equitable healthcare access to make sure they follow through.
“People need to exert pressure on the government to keep their election promises,” she says. “This can mean sending them emails, making phone calls, and tagging them in social media posts. It's important that people and organizations let the government know that we are all waiting for these promises to be fulfilled.”