Abortion access varies widely across Canada

Women take part in a protest as pro-choice demonstrators rally at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton on Thursday, April 17, 2014. David Smith / The Canadian Press

New Brunswick’s premier, Brian Gallant, has announced plans to improve access to abortions in the province. This move is being hailed by pro-choice groups as a significant step, however women in different provinces still have very different levels of access to abortions.

Although New Brunswick was the only province to require two physicians certify that an abortion was medically required before granting it (a requirement that will be dropped in January), Atlantic provinces are still far behind when it comes to access to abortion. Access to abortion services varies considerably depending on where a woman lives.

READ MORE: N.B. to scrap regulation that restricts access to abortion

A big factor is distance.

Generally speaking, women in British Columbia and Quebec have fairly good access to abortion by comparison to other provinces, said Dr. Wendy Norman, who holds a Chair in Applied Public Health Research for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Public Health Agency of Canada. According to a yet-to-be-published study she has co-authored, those two provinces tend to have abortion services located where women of reproductive age are – unlike other provinces.

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Nearly half of Canada’s 94 abortion facilities are located in Quebec, according to the study. And the province has a mix of urban and rural facilities, as the procedure is provided at community healthcare clinics in every region. In B.C., certain hospitals are designated to have to provide abortion services, to ensure urban and rural access across different regions.

In other provinces, abortion services tend to be located mostly in large urban centres, out of proportion to the number of women who live in rural areas, meaning that many women who wish to obtain an abortion may have to travel a long distance to get one. And in Prince Edward Island, there are no hospitals or clinics that perform the procedure.

“More than half of women accessing abortion already have children at home, so it’s phenomenally intrusive to have to make arrangements for child care, getting off work, and having somebody drive you to access services and that person drive you back,” said Norman.

Number of facilities offering abortions:

  • British Columbia – 16, half of which are in rural areas
  • Prairies – 8
  • Ontario – 16
  • Quebec – 46, half of which are in rural areas
  • Atlantic Canada – 4, one of which is in a rural area. PEI has no facilities.
  • Territories – 4

It’s difficult to obtain the exact number of hospitals and clinics providing abortions in each province. For security reasons, many advocacy groups and hotlines are reluctant to provide a list of abortion providers (though an incomplete list is available from the National Abortion Federation). Even Norman and her co-author consciously chose to mark statistics only by region.

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“If I had to speculate on why this information is hard to come across, I think that the effect of terrorism in times past where people have targeted abortion facilities or abortion providers, means that all facilities in all provinces are very protective of their services. We published totals regionally, particularly in regions where there are fewer services, so that we weren’t targeting individual services.”

Norman’s study also shows that 96 per cent of abortions in Canada are performed through a surgical procedure. “That means women are having to travel,” she said. In other countries, the drug mifepristone is commonly used to induce abortions. Health Canada is still reviewing the drug application and will not speculate on when it may be approved or rejected.

“If mifepristone was approved in Canada, then primary care providers would be able to provide safe, effective abortions earlier in pregnancy,” said Norman.

Abortion is a common procedure in Canada, said Norman. A previous study she worked on, using Statistics Canada information, showed that 31 per cent of women in Canada have had an abortion at some point in their lives.

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