This column is an opinion of Rebecca Viau, who helped lead the fight for access to abortion in Prince Edward Island. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
I have been on the front lines of Prince Edward Island’s fight for access to abortion. I have seen with my own eyes the harm caused when access to abortion is limited or restricted.
By 2014, I had taken a step forward in the movement and became something of a beacon, a public face that people can connect with. Once someone contacted me to access abortion services, I would mobilize the community-organized support network that could help them find the treatment they needed in a timely manner. Since abortion services were not available on Prince Edward Island until 2017, anyone wishing to have an abortion had to travel off-island for treatment.
Through this experience, I have witnessed many complex and often painful situations in which people have found themselves trapped due to restricted and limited access to abortion. I was compelled to share these stories with the public. Unfairly politicized, the discussion around abortion is often too quickly dehumanized and I wanted to contribute to changing the conversation.
Via the website The Sovereign Womb, I collected and published the stories of people seeking abortions on PEI. The website has had an impact. Over 100,000 people visited the site in the first month of its release – and people were talking about it. Conversations evolved as people came to see the harm caused by the provincial government’s refusal to provide access to abortion on the island.
Why did it take 30 years?
Despite shifting public opinion, with the majority of islanders in favor of providing abortion services on the island, lawmakers have made excuses or sidestepped the issue at every opportunity. The 30-year ban on abortion services in P.E.I. would not be lifted.
According to the province, Islanders were happy with the status quo and no changes to access to abortion were needed. Ultimately, it was a legal battle between community organization Abortion Access Now PEI (AAN PEI) and the PEI government. AAN PEI sued the government for violating the islanders’ constitutional right to equal access to health services.
In the spring of 2016, three months after the notice was filed and before the case went to court, the Prince Edward Island government ended its restrictive abortion policy. . The province acknowledged that the courts would likely have found its abortion policy violated the charter and announced that it would open a women’s health clinic and provide a full range of reproductive health services, including medical abortion and surgical.
And yes, it all happened.
However, what I find particularly remarkable is that even with public support — even with proof of harm — it still took 30 years for the provincial law to change. Neither federal government pressure nor public opinion could persuade Prince Edward Island to provide equitable access to abortion. It took 30 years of tireless effort, wave after wave, by community activists to not only develop a legal battle strategy, but also to help reduce the harmful effects of prohibition by supporting people in need. abortion services through various informal support networks.
Decriminalization is not synonymous with access
Since Roe v. Wade is under threat in the United States, I think it’s important for me to tell this story and warn others that restrictive and prohibitive laws are not easily changed. And even if abortion has been decriminalized, this does not automatically mean that access to services is equally available to all who need them.
The conversation in Canada should be about improving access to abortion and reproductive services rather than whether the service should be provided. Canada decriminalized abortion in 1988, and I, for one, am prepared to see the focus of the discussion change. It is no longer a debate about whether or not we have the right to choose, and systematically bringing the conversation back to this decided point keeps the lack of access to abortion in this country hidden, silenced and masked as a political corner.
Decriminalization has not led to fair or even reasonably improved access to abortion in Canada, even 30 years after the law was changed.
Today, the majority of abortion providers in this country are located within 150 kilometers of our southern border. And typically only one in six hospitals offer abortion services. This means that many people who need to access this essential service must travel a complex and often difficult route to access this urgent procedure. In a country as vast as Canada, one would think that such a basic, but life-saving medical procedure requiring very little specialized equipment would be mobilized in as many communities as possible.
But the struggle for access continues.
Atlantic Canada does not have real access
The 2016 Report of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioners clearly highlighted the alarming lack of access to abortion services in Canada. The UN has called on the Canadian government to act against inequality.
And as abortion access hits the headlines again, it has become clear that the Canadian government has silently ignored the fact that our healthcare system is failing most people who need abortions. in this country. No matter how forcefully our leaders declare on the national stage that Canadians have the right to choose, that a person’s right to choose will not be denied in this country, the fact remains that the provinces control and decide how and where abortion services are provided.
We need only look to New Brunswick to see how it is today.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself said, even last week, that the federal government is eager to increase funding to New Brunswick to support the private abortion clinic, Clinic 554, in Fredericton. Yet, despite financial support promised by the federal government, New Brunswick continues to deny access to abortion through the private clinic and ignores the harm done not only to the people of NB, but to anyone on the East Coast who would benefit from increased access if the clinic were to be open for service.
Currently, only four hospitals in Atlantic Canada offer abortion services. That’s four clinics with hospitals to provide abortion services to potentially a million people. This not only means the cost and stress of travel, but it also means longer waiting times and, in some cases, time is running out.
It is our constitutional right
If the federal government is telling the truth when it says it is committed to supporting the right to equitable access to abortion services in this country, but the provinces control the delivery of the service, what could be the solution of replacement? Sure, the federal government could financially pressure the provinces not to provide adequate access to abortion services, but that’s probably too politically messy given our four-year election cycle, and it turned out unsuccessful in the past.
For my part, I certainly do not hold my breath to see great gestures on the part of the federal government in this direction. However, I do know that it is certainly possible for the federal government to make birth control and contraceptives free for everyone. Imagine the difference it would make. Really, take a minute and think about it. Let’s start supporting women and gender diverse Canadians with proper sexual and reproductive health care from the start. Invest in harm reduction.
I urge anyone reading this to take the time to visit The Sovereign Uterus website, read and witness the stories of people who have survived access to abortion on Prince Edward Island during prohibition.
Take a moment to reflect on your place in this story. Do you feel complacent about the problem? Is it difficult to chat with your friends, family and colleagues? Let’s all take a moment to make room for those who have suffered and open our hearts and minds to the harm that will continue to happen if access remains as restricted as it is now. Can we move the conversation to a conversation that will be productive? I want to continue to pivot the focus on abortion in Canada from the right to choose to the right to equitable access to services. It is our constitutional right.
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