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Uncertain Futures

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Section: Canadian News Geography: Atlantic New Brunswick Topics: Women

July 6, 2006

Uncertain Futures

Gaining access to publicly funded abortions is not easy in New Brunswick

by Chris Arsenault

The only hospital in New Brunswick that was providing publicly funded abortions stopped performing the procedure at the end of June. photo: JoEllen Donahue Hermes
The decision to have an abortion is rarely easy, but after the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton stopped performing the procedure at the end of June, and with pro-life groups rallying to prevent Moncton's George Dumont Hospital from picking up the slack, many New Brunswickers are wondering about the procedure's future in the province.

"We have no information, no idea on anything. All we know is that we are busy," said Simone Leibovitch, a staffer at Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton, which charges up to $750 for an abortion.

Chalmers was the only hospital in New Brunswick that provided provincially funded abortions. Last year, Chalmers performed 400 of the 404 Medicare abortions in New Brunswick, while the Morgentaler Clinic performed approximately 600.

"Anytime a hospital stops providing abortions it's a victory," said Pete Ryan, executive director of the New Brunswick Right to Life Association.

The provincial government says two hospitals will step in to provide the services, but they haven't yet said where.

"There will be no interruption in service," said Johanne Leblanc, spokesperson for the department of health. "For safety reasons, physicians, and even I myself, don't know where it will be taking place."

"How are people suppose to get to the hospital if no one knows where they are taking place?" wonders Michelle LeBlanc, a New Brunswick feminist and graduate engineering student.

The fact that physicians providing legal government-funded services are forced into secrecy is worrisome for many New Brunswickers. But fear of anti-abortion extremists is only one of the impediments to proper abortion access in N.B.

The New Brunswick government currently refuses to fund abortions unless they are deemed "medically necessary" by two physicians and performed in a hospital by a gynecologist.

"The government makes it extremely hard to get access to abortions paid for under the Canada Health Act," said Fredericton women's rights activist Jennifer Carkner.

In 1970, a group of women set off from Vancouver to Ottawa on what would be dubbed the 'abortion caravan.' They stopped in communities along the way performing guerrilla theatre presentations portraying back-street abortions.

Upon arriving in Ottawa, 300 women and men marched on Parliament Hill, demanding a meeting with government. None of the politicians would talk to them. In response, 30 women chained themselves to their chairs in the House of Commons gallery. This helped kick-start a long-term struggle for open access and full legalization of abortions.

On January 28, 1988, after years of protests and legal battles, the Supreme Court handed down a ground-breaking ruling: "The right to liberty...guarantees a degree of personal autonomy over important decisions intimately affecting his or her private life," said one of the Justices. "The decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state."

"N.B. rules are archaic. A woman shouldn't need two doctors' permission to have an abortion," said Leibovitch.

Along with being 'archaic', current policies aren't cost-effective, say critics. Bringing a patient into a hospital operating room costs far more than using a clinic; gynecologists are more expensive than doctors who can perform the procedure just as easily.

"I think it would be really smart if the government funded this (Morgentaler clinic) so women don't have to pay," said Leibovitch, who has been working at the clinic for a year.

"We have the set up and staff here, where it's a lot more economically sensible than using up O.R. [Operating Room] time in the hospital."

Before being partially legalized in 1969, abortions were a leading cause of emergency room visits for young women, as they were often botched.

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