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Civil liberties group launches legal action against N.B. for greater abortion access

Click to play video 'Clinic 554 still seeing patients with complex care before full closure' Clinic 554 still seeing patients with complex care before full closure
Clinic 554 has shut down most of its service on Sept. 30 and thousands of New Brunswickers are without a family doctor. As Megan Yamoah reports, owner Dr. Adrian Edgar says he is still seeing several of his patients with complex care needs before fully shutting down. – Oct 3, 2020

FREDERICTON – A national civil liberties group has filed legal notice in the first stage of a suit against the New Brunswick government for lack of access to abortion.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association sent a letter dated Oct. 29 and statement of claim to the province’s attorney general. Michael Bryant, the group’s executive director, says it wants the province to repeal its regulations on abortion and give wider access to the procedure.

“We gave the government the chance to do the right thing but sadly they have given us no other option,” he said Friday in a news release.

Read more: Civil rights group prepares lawsuit on ‘discriminatory’ N.B. abortion law

The group is targeting regulation 84-20 under New Brunswick’s Medical Services Payment Act. That rule states the province will not subsidize the cost of an abortion conducted outside a “hospital facility approved by the jurisdiction in which the hospital facility is located.”

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The group argues that regulation is inconsistent with and in violation of the Canada Health Act.

In the letter to the attorney general, the group said, “Repealing this discriminatory law and creating accessible, publicly funded abortion in New Brunswick is not only a constitutional matter, but is a fundamental human rights issue.”

New Brunswick subsidizes abortions at three hospitals — two in Moncton and one in Bathurst — but will not cover the cost of the procedure if it is performed at a private clinic.

Click to play video 'Clinic 554 shuts down after months of advocacy efforts for abortion rights' Clinic 554 shuts down after months of advocacy efforts for abortion rights
Clinic 554 shuts down after months of advocacy efforts for abortion rights – Oct 2, 2020

Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, CCLA’s equality program director, said the province is violating the law. “The courts were clear very long ago that women have a right to choose what happens with their bodies, and setting up barriers to abortion access is unconstitutional,” she said in an interview Friday.

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Two weeks ago, the group sent a letter to the government threatening a lawsuit if the province didn’t act to increase abortion access. Mendelsohn Aviv said the province did not reply.

She said she hopes the government will amend the regulation and avoid the legal proceedings.

“There’s no justification for fighting it,” she said. “It will just cost them money. It’s not a fight they can win, and it’s an injustice that must be fixed.”

A private abortion provider in Fredericton, Clinic 554, has said numerous times it is closing because the province will not subsidize out-of-hospital abortions — but as of Friday it was still operating.

“We’re still providing abortions,” Clinic 554’s medical director, Dr. Adrian Edgar, said. “We’ve had to reduce services drastically over the last year. We are no longer providing transgender health. We are no longer providing routine family-practice care or addiction care.”

The clinic’s services are being funded almost exclusively by public donations, he said. Edgar said it was unfortunate the issue is ending up in the courts.

Read more: PC Leader Blaine Higgs offers shifting answers on abortion funding in New Brunswick

“I am disappointed by our government that it would take a national human rights organization to sue them to do right by patients seeking abortions in New Brunswick,” he said.

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The group’s Oct. 29 letter claims New Brunswick’s abortion regulation is discriminatory because it denies women, girls and transgender people fair access to abortion services. The statement of claim alleges the regulation is unconstitutional and violates the Charter.

A provincial government spokesperson refused to comment on the potential lawsuit Friday. “We do not comment on legal matters,” Bruce Macfarlane said in an email.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.