03/31/2016 11:32 EDT | Updated 04/01/2017 01:12 EDT

Abortion services coming to P.E.I., province announces

The P.E.I. government announced today it's moving to provide abortion services on the Island for the first time in almost 35 years.

Premier Wade MacLauchlan, along with Health and Wellness Minister Rob Henderson and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Paula Biggar announced Thursday afternoon in Charlottetown that the province is asking Health PEI to to plan for a new women's reproductive health centre that will offer a number of services, including medical and surgical abortions.

"In coming to this position, government respects that Islanders hold a range of deep convictions about abortion," said MacLaughlan.

"This range of views and these strong convictions are reflected within our cabinet and caucus, and have been fully aired in our deliberations. We have members who are pro-life and members who are pro-choice. We respect these views and respect each other, as we expect will be the case among Prince Edward Islanders."

Health PEI has been directed to complete a business plan for the centre — which will be located in a hospital setting.

The government hopes to have a plan in place and to be able to provide abortions as early as the end of this year.

"When the new women's reproductive health centre is in place, government will cease the service funding agreement [with Halifax]," said Henderson. "Moncton service will remain in place for Island women who choose to use it."

In January, abortion access advocates gave the government notice they would be filing a lawsuit to force the province to provide full and unrestricted access to publicly funded abortion services on the Island.

MacLauchlan said the province likely wouldn't have been able to successfully defend itself against that suit.

The premier said a provincial abortion rights policy — like the one P.E.I. has — is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

P.E.I. is the only province or territory that does not provide surgical abortions, although it will pay for the service, in Moncton, N.B., and Halifax.

MacLauchlan had promised when he was elected last spring to reduce barriers for Island women seeking abortions.

Last summer, the province made it easier for women to access abortions out-of-province by allowing them to call a toll-free number to make an appointment for an abortion at a Moncton, N.B., hospital without a referral from a doctor or Health PEI.

The PEI Right to Life Association maintains there's no constitutional right to abortion in Canada.

"Our association does not support the government's decision to have abortion access on the Island as it kills an innocent human being," said executive director Nicole Dupuis. "We are pleased, however, that they are offering a pre- and post-abortive counselling service for women.

"We will continue our efforts to educate the Island about the harmful effects of abortion and also to try and have other services available so women so feel that they have the support needed to not have an abortion."

Biggar acknowledged there are many strong opinions on abortion.

"We have listened with respect to many voices and personal convictions on this topic," she said. "Public policy must be reassessed and revised to ensure it stands the test of time. The decision we're announcing today means that we will offer timely access to frontline services that align with women's equality rights."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he welcomed the announcement.

Surgical abortions have not been performed legally on the Island since 1982.

Correction : An earlier version of this story said the last surgical abortion on P.E.I. was performed in 1981. It was actually in 1982.(Mar 31, 2016 2:21 PM)