Health authorities are responsible for abortion access, not the government: Higgs

Click to play video: 'N.B. health minister says abortion access is responsibility of health authorities, not province'
N.B. health minister says abortion access is responsibility of health authorities, not province
WATCH: During Wednesday’s question period, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said it’s up to the regional health authorities to determine if there’s adequate abortion access in the province. – Jun 2, 2021

New Brunswick’s premier and health minister say it’s the responsibility of the regional health authorities to determine if abortion access in the province is adequate or not.

“Our position has always been, and we’ve been very public about it, that the (regional health authorities) are responsible to deliver the health-care services in this province, to deem whether or not they are appropriate,” health minister Dorothy Shephard said in Wednesday’s question period.

“That is their responsibility. They will deliver the services as they see they need.”

Those comments were in response to Caraquet MLA Isabelle Theriault, who pushed several female PC cabinet ministers to say whether they think the province is providing adequate access to abortion procedures. The three cabinet ministers included women’s equality minister Tammy Scott-Wallace, infrastructure minister Jill Green and aboriginal affairs minister Arlene Dunn.

Shephard rose to answer each time.

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“No, it’s not their responsibility, it is your responsibility, minister,” Theriault told Shephard.

Shephard’s comments are a subtle shift in how the government has spoken about abortion access in the province. Premier Blaine Higgs has said repeatedly that he believes the province is providing adequate access and is not in violation of the Canada Health Act.

“We actually believe that, certainly in the last few years, they are indeed very accessible here in the province,” Higgs said in August 2020.

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“I think that we are very much in line with meeting our objectives and providing access as warranted and as needed.”

On Wednesday Higgs said his previous comments were based on statistics showing the demand for surgical abortions were lagging while demand for the abortion pill mifegymiso was growing.

“It’s not for me to judge,” Higgs said of access levels. “The same with every health service delivered in our province, I don’t think politicians should judge.”

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Right now surgical abortions are only available in three provincial hospitals in the province: one in Bathurst and two in Moncton. Out-of-hospital abortions are not funded by Medicare, due to regulation 84-20 of the Medical Services Payment Act.

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Clinic 554 in Fredericton was the only clinic performing surgical abortions, but announced it would “all but close” in September of 2020 due to funding issues.

Whether or not the province is meeting legal requirements for access is contentions. The province is facing litigation from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has launched a challenge of regulation 84-20 saying it violates the Canada Health Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The federal government has also deemed the province to be in violation of the Canada Health Act and has docked health transfers to the province by $140,216 each of the last two years.

Higgs has maintained that funding abortions outside the hospital system would create a two-tier health-care system.

“Where does it end? What other private services should we start in the province?” Higgs said on Wednesday.

At least one of the health authorities has previously called for Medicare funding to be extended to abortions performed out-of-hospital, as well. The board of Horizon passed a motion in 2019 saying it would “advocate to the government of New Brunswick for payment to physicians to provide abortion services in a quality and safe environment outside of hospitals.”

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On Wednesday, Higgs said that’s not for the health authorities to decide.

“They could pass a resolution that they’re not doing any more heart surgeries,” Higgs said. “That is not their option.”

The health authorities are currently looking at whether they should add abortion services at more hospitals, at the request of the government.

“Why is this service, if there is a demand and a need here, why it is being provided in two locations in Moncton and one in Bathurst and not here in Fredericton or Saint John,” Higgs said.

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