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UPDATED: N.B. to scrap regulation that restricts access to abortion

FREDERICTON – New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant says he will scrap a contentious regulation that restricts access to abortion in the province.

“Government will be moving forward with an amendment to 84-20 to no longer require two physicians to certify that the procedure is medically required,” Gallant said.

Gallant made the surprise announcement Wednesday in Fredericton, saying not only will the procedure no longer require two physicians, it will also no longer have to be done by a specialist.

The changes will come into effect Jan. 1 and will be covered like any insured medical service.

“Government will work with the regional health authorities to increase capacity and improve the timeliness of access,” he said.

Two hospitals, one in Bathurst and Moncton, were equipped to perform abortions prior to this announcement. Gallant says more hospitals will be equipped to do the procedure now.

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The cost to provide the service will depend on the number of procedures, but the additional cost province-wide is estimated to be in the $500,000 to $700,000 range each year.

The new premier says he decided to make the amendments after determining that a section of Regulation 84-20 of the Medical Services Payment Act hindered access to the procedure.

“Just because this is something that makes for an uncomfortable conversation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act,” Gallant said.

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He campaigned on a promise to strike a panel that would review barriers to abortion, but abruptly changed course.

Gallant said cabinet voted on the change, and there was a “consensus” among cabinet members.

But PC opposition leader Bruce Fitch said that doesn’t mean all members are on board.

“If they have to stand up, are they going to stand up for what they believe in or are they going to stand up for what Premier Gallant has told them to believe,” he said.

The legislature is back on December 3. Fitch said he’s not ruling out trying to bring the issue to a vote.

Peter Ryan of N.B.’s Right to Life organization said it’s a dark moment in New Brunswick’s history.

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“It hurts,” he said. “It hurts to know that people are going to be supporting such a policy. We will try our best to increase our services, because more women unfortunately, I think, are going to be abortion minded.”

Access only in hospitals, not clinics

The issue arose when the Morgentaler Clinic closed in Fredericton in July. Hundreds protested the closure.

Wendy Robbins, a women’s studies professor at the University of New Brunswick and an activist, has been working on the issue since the closure of the clinic.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder in my life than between the announcement of the closure of the clinic and now,” she said.

But the amendment doesn’t allow coverage for abortions performed in clinics. That’s the next thing activists want to see changed.

“I think we need to very quickly examine why the barrier still exists and that it can’t be done in a clinic,” she said.

 With files from The Canadian Press