Abortion rights group plans to take P.E.I. government to court over access

Women take part in a protest as pro-choice demonstrators rally at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton on Thursday, April 17, 2014. Barriers to abortion are creating stress and financial strain for Prince Edward Island women according to advocates. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Smith.

An abortion rights group in Prince Edward Island says it plans to take the province to court over its refusal to provide the medical procedure on the island.

Abortion Access Now PEI said in a statement Tuesday that it has notified the province’s deputy attorney general that it intends to file a notice of application in the province’s Supreme Court.

The newly-formed group says the province has an obligation to provide safe abortions on the Island under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Currently, women must travel out of the province to obtain an abortion.

READ MORE: Abortions for some – Access still depends on who you are and where you live

Colleen MacQuarrie, the group’s co-chairwoman, says they will fight to have the provincial government pay for abortion services on the Island.

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“We are absolutely committed to making sure that Prince Edward Island women are as equal as any other woman in the rest of Canada. It shouldn’t matter where you live, how your human rights are experienced.”

Women from P.E.I. have to travel to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia to obtain surgical abortions paid for by the Island government.

“It’s the only province in Canada that doesn’t have access to abortion in the province,” said Kim Stanton, legal director for the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, a group providing litigation support to the P.E.I. abortion rights group.

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“It’s our view that this policy in PEI discriminates on the basis of sex and pregnancy because it excludes abortion, which is a basic health care service required by women, from the health care services offered in PEI,” she said.

READ MORE: Your stories – Navigating Canada’s abortion provider patchwork

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the PEI Attorney General’s Office said that the government is reviewing the proposed lawsuit. “Last year government announced the removal of a number of barriers to improve access to abortion services for Island women. Government has just received notice and will be reviewing very carefully — and in consultation with legal counsel — the material to be filed. Government will respond accordingly in due course.”

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Premier Wade MacLauchlan has promised to remove barriers to access to abortion, but critics say he hasn’t gone far enough. Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has said that her government recognizes a woman’s right to choose.

“We know that abortion services remain patchy in parts of the country, and that rural women in particular face barriers to access. Our government will examine ways to better equalize access for all Canadian women,” she told Global News, though she did not provide specifics on how that would be accomplished.

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Beginning in July 2015, PEI women were able to travel to Moncton to obtain an abortion without first getting a referral from a local doctor. The procedure is covered by PEI Medicare.

This was a “tremendous” step forward, said MacQuarrie, though barriers still remain – notably that women still have to travel out-of-province. This means that women who are young, poor, or who don’t have a strong social support network still have problems accessing the service.

“Travel out of province is problematic if you need to find the resources to travel,” she said.

“That would include the bridge fare. But it would also mean taking time off work. And if you’re working in precarious employment, sometimes that’s not an easy thing to do. Or if you need to arrange child care, that can also be problematic.”

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MacQuarrie, also chair of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, found in a 2014 study that some desperate Island women resorted to a number of measures to try to self-induce abortions, including excessive drinking, intentionally falling down stairs, and even asking their male partners to hit them in the abdomen. She cautions though that her research was done before women were able to obtain abortions without referral in Moncton.

Abortion rights group plans to take P.E.I. government to court over access - image

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny and the Canadian Press

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