The Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre is the only place in Halifax where abortions are available. Photo: Scott Lilwall.

Abortion services still limited in Maritimes

Abortion has been legalized for 22 years, but access in the Maritimes is still considered limited.

Thursday, Jan. 28 marks the 22nd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion in Canada. However, abortion accessibility, which ranges from province to province, is often tenuous, and is particularly limited in the Maritimes.

The shortage of services in Atlantic Canada compared to other provinces, as well as lengthy wait times and the frequent need to pay private fees concerns sexual health workers and women's groups.

Patricia LaRue, executive director of Canadians for Choice, a national non-profit group that aims to provide information and reproductive choice to Canadian women, said it is difficult to know why abortion services are limited in the Maritimes. She said it is likely that government authorities do not recognize it as an important service.

"Access to abortion services is really scarce in the Maritimes - both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1989 banned abortion outside of hospitals - the only provinces who tried to make this restriction at that time," LaRue said.

Rebecca Attenborough, coordinator of the Reproductive Care Program at the Nova Scotia Department of Health said there has been "no conscious decision to cap or to limit services to this specialty area. We're just in an environment of tight resources and trying to balance the needs of the population in all specialty areas."

The Health Canada Act requires provinces to fully fund abortion. Abortions performed in hospitals are funded throughout the country.

In a number of provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, the provincial government funds abortions performed at private clinics in addition to those done in hospital.

Although Newfoundland does have publicly-funded abortion clinics, there are no clinics in Nova Scotia or P.E.I., nor does the latter offer abortion services in hospital.

At the Halifax Morgentaler clinic, which closed in 2003, women were forced to pay out of pocket, as are women at the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, N.B..


Access in Nova Scotia

Only four out of 30 hospitals in Nova Scotia perform abortions. Women from rural areas often travel to Halifax for the procedure.

"Increased services are needed as... Halifax deals with the majority of TAs (therapeutic abortions) from across the province. The delay can be another barrier to women seeking abortions," said Angus Campbell, executive director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, which offers options counselling to women dealing with unexpected pregnancy.

Currently, all abortions in Halifax are performed at the Queen Elizabeth II hospital, where they are covered by the province.

But accessing an abortion in Nova Scotia is typically a lengthy, multi-step process.

"This can be taxing on a woman's emotional health," Campbell said.

A woman must first be assessed by a doctor, who refers her to the hospital's Termination of Pregnancy Unit. She is then sent for an ultrasound and blood work, and subsequently booked for a procedure, which often constitutes a two to four-week waiting period.

Exceptions for wait times are made if the woman is close to the cut-off point of 15 weeks and six days.

Campbell said a number of anti-choice doctors in the province refuse to give abortion referrals.

"There are definite gaps in therapeutic abortion services across Canada."

He said that for women in a province like Ontario, where all private clinics are publicly funded, woman can get their blood work independently, and book both an ultrasound and the actual procedure within a day or two.

"The fact that women in Nova Scotia have to attend multiple medical appointments prior to the procedure is a barrier to accessing services."

If a woman is from out of province, she has to pay a fee for abortion in Nova Scotia, which can range from $230 to $700.

"At the Halifax Sexual Health Clinic, we understand the challenges and barriers women face regarding unexpected pregnancies. We treat all of our clients in a respectful, non-judgmental, safe and confidential manner," Campbell said.

University women in Halifax can generally get a referral from a doctor at their student health services clinic.

Receptionists at the Dalhousie and Mount St. Vincent student health centres said referrals were available upon appointment, whereas the receptionist at SMU health services said she was unsure as to whether this was available. The NSCAD health centre could not be reached.

SMU Conference

Recognizing the need for an autonomous, reproductive justice movement, the Saint Mary's University Women's Centre is holding a "Trust Women" conference all day Thursday.

Included in the discussion will be issues of accessibility and the need to show empathy to women for the complex reproductive decisions they often face.

Among the speakers featured at the conference is Jessica Shaw, former research coordinator for Canadians for Choice. She will discuss abortion access as it varies from province to province, based on the 2006 report she compiled.

Some key findings from the report can be read here.

Shaw's report finds that women seeking an abortion in the Maritimes often face barriers such as limited access to services and information and expensive private fees.

"Trust Women" will culminate tomorrow night in a free public lecture, film screening and discussion at 7 p.m., at SMU's McNally Theatre.

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