It’s been nearly a year since New Brunswick’s only freestanding abortion clinic announced it would be forced to close. Eleven months and one federal election later, on the eve of a provincial election, the fate of Clinic 554 — and of accessible abortion care in the province — remains uncertain.
The province’s incumbent premier Blaine Higgs and his Progressive Conservative party are currently projected to win a majority government in Monday’s provincial election. But even as some of the party’s candidates have expressed support for improved access to abortion services, Higgs hasn’t budged in his position that the status quo is good enough.
“This isn’t something that’s just a problem with Conservatives, because it was also a problem when we had a Liberal government,” Jessi Taylor, a spokesperson for Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, told HuffPost Canada.
“But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter which party gets in, because New Brunswick is breaking the Canada Health Act.”
Liberal Premier Brian Gallant, who served before Higgs, eliminated the need for a person seeking an abortion to get permission from two doctors. But he didn’t touch the province’s funding structure, which only pays for abortions performed in hospitals.
Clinic 554 is the province’s only abortion clinic not located in a hospital, and the only provider in Fredericton. In a letter written last year, clinic director Dr. Adrian Edgar explained that Clinic 554 would soon be forced to close because of the province’s refusal to cover the cost of abortions performed in clinics, a violation of the Canada Health Act.
“Inequity in terms of access to services”
The federal government agrees that New Brunswick’s refusal to fund clinic abortions defies the law. In the Canada Health Act Annual Report published in February, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she would work to make sure the province followed federal rules.
“Obviously there is an inequity in terms of access to services, and under their proposed regime women are not covered in very specific regions,” she said in parliament, according to CBC News.
She also said that she told the province’s health minister, Ted Flemming, that the feds “expect the province to come into compliance and ensure that there is an equity and access in particular around abortion.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada several weeks later, the federal government gave back the $140,000 in transfer payments they had taken from N.B. to penalize them for their abortion policies, based on the pressures the pandemic put on the health-care system.
While a spokesperson for Hajdu’s office didn’t offer specifics about when the government would return to putting pressure on N.B., he told HuffPost Canada that ensuring New Brunswickers can access abortion remains a priority.
“Our government has been clear that women have a right to access reproductive services,” Hajdu’s press secretary Cole Davidson said.
“We will ensure that the New Brunswick government eliminates patient charges for abortion services outside of hospitals. We will use all options available to defend a woman’s right to choose, including those that exist under the Canada Health Act.”
“Willing to fight to have them in our community in some way”
During the election campaign, some Progressive Conservative candidates have expressed support for improved access to abortion services.
“I think the services that Clinic 554 provides are important to have in our community,” Jill Green, the PC candidate for Fredericton North, said in a video posted to her Facebook page earlier this month.
“I’m willing to fight to have them in our community in some way. Is it Clinic 554? I don’t know, but I will advocate to have the services that are provided at Clinic 554 be located in Fredericton for our residents.”
And Dr. Brian MacKinnon, who’s running for the PCs in Fredericton South, told the CBC radio show Information Morning Fredericton that “I understand [abortion] access is a problem.”
He also acknowledged the care the clinic provides to trans and other LGBTQ people.
“The LGBTQ community … is very close to my heart,” MacKinnon said. “I would like to do anything I could to try to support them, and the doctors who have expertise in helping with their problems.”
That PC candidates are bringing these issues up signals a shift from previous elections, Taylor said.
“Even Conservative candidates are pointing out the need for abortion services and queer care, and are actually bewildered that this isn’t more of a baseline service,” she said.
“It sort of pushes back on what the Conservative government has been telling us for the last couple years, which is that New Brunswickers are fine with the status quo. And it turns out that conservatives themselves are not even fine with the status quo.”
The premier, though, hasn’t indicated that he’s on the same page as those candidates. During an interview with Saint John radio station Country 94, Higgs repeated that he does not believe the province’s abortion policy violates the Canada Health Act. He invited anyone who thought it did to challenge his government in court.
“I would suggest if someone really believed it doesn’t meet the Canada Health Act they would challenge it through the process that exists.”
Higgs did not respond to HuffPost Canada’s request for an interview.
Taylor said his comments reflected “a really frustrating sentiment and a slap in the face.”
“Challenging the government in court and creating that kind of legal action is not something that’s actually accessible for most New Brunswickers,” she said.
“Conservatives are constantly campaigning on fiscal economic responsibility ... it’s wasting community resources to encourage someone to go into some sort of legal battle.”
The ‘status quo’ in New Brunswick
Abortions are covered in New Brunswick if they’re performed in hospitals. There are only three hospitals in the province that offer the procedure — two in Moncton and one in Bathurst. That leaves Fredericton, the province’s capital and second most-populous city, without access to the procedure unless they pay out-of-pocket.
There are a lot of reasons people seeking abortions might prefer a private clinic, as Darrah Teitel, a campaigns officer at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights previously explained to HuffPost Canada.
“Hospitals are often staffed, especially in smaller provinces, by people that are known” to the patient, she said. ″There’s the fear of being outed. There’s the fear of being judged. And then there’s the threat that you’ll encounter anti-choice gatekeepers who may refuse to refer you, or delay you from getting an abortion, or push you towards a crisis pregnancy centre.”
And during the pandemic, going into a hospital means risking potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Abortion care is definitely something that we’re already set up to do” outside of hospitals,” Taylor previously told HuffPost Canada. She calls the system that unnecessarily sends vulnerable patients seeking abortion to hospitals “absolutely infuriating.”
Taylor also took issue with Higgs’ statement during the Country 94 interview that abortion access is something that “becomes an issue” before “every election.”
“It’s as if he’s not the one who’s making it an election issue by refusing to follow the law,” she said.
“People who are trying to access health care are really tired of their lives and their bodies being used in elections.”
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