The backwater of P.E.I. abortion politics

Canada's tiniest province with a population to match is often overlooked in the hustle and bustle of Canadian politics. Thought of as a quiet backwater, Prince Edward Island is renowned for its picturesque scenery, red-sand beaches, lighthouses, and quaint villages and churches. It also boasts the longest bridge in Canada, as well as the country's best lobster suppers (in my opinion). To top it off, P.E.I. is the birthplace of Confederation, the home of Anne of Green Gables, and a Life Sanctuary.

Wait... what?

"Life Sanctuary" is a propaganda term coined by P.E.I.'s anti-choice activists. Apparently, they like to delude themselves that every Island woman is having the many babies she was biologically and biblically destined to have, because P.E.I. is the only province in Canada without abortion services. In the real world however, P.E.I. has one of the lowest birthrates in Canada, and Islanders travel outside the province for abortions (the P.E.I. government does pay for some abortions in Halifax). Those who can't afford the time or money to travel sometimes resort to dangerous do-it-yourself abortions, or are compelled to carry to term and give birth against their will.

A culture of silence

How is it possible that in the year 2015, some Canadians -- women as well as transgender people -- still can't access abortion in their own province and are being forced to risk their health and safety? Well, it's not because the Island is too small or poor to provide abortions. It's anti-choice politics all the way. P.E.I. activist and community educator Josie Baker explains the early history:

"Abortion was performed on a limited basis in PEI until 1982. A 'Therapeutic Abortion Committee' would occasionally approve a woman's request for an abortion at the Prince County Hospital in the City of Summerside. Due to pressure from anti-abortion groups, these approvals ended, and the committee was disbanded in 1986. In 1988, the historic Morgentaler decision struck down Canada's laws restricting abortion. However, then-Premier Joe Ghiz's Liberal government passed and signed a resolution urging the Federal government to pass new laws outlawing abortion. Anti-abortion groups then labelled PEI a 'Life Sanctuary' and have dominated the public discourse, creating a culture of silence surrounding abortion in PEI."

That culture of silence was finally shattered in 2011 due to research by Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie of the University of Prince Edward Island, who interviewed many women who had sought abortions over the years. From the abstract of her report:

"Even for women with adequate supports and resources, significant barriers to access to abortion persisted and in many cases, negatively impacted women's physical, mental, and emotional health. Women who were poorer, younger, isolated, or with few supports were the most harmed."

Dr. MacQuarrie's work became the catalyst for a resurgence of pro-choice activism in P.E.I. One of the first groups to launch itself onto the front pages was the new P.E.I. Reproductive Rights Organization (PRRO). It began advocating for abortion services on the Island, more information on how to access them outside the province, and coverage of all associated costs.

Other groups and individuals, many associated with the Abortion Rights Network, also participated in lobbying and outreach. Through media work, rallies and marches, speak-outs, conferences, and other initiatives, these activists succeeded in raising awareness not just in P.E.I. but across Canada. The issue was propelled onto the political stage, forcing politicians and officials to respond -- albeit reluctantly and unhelpfully.

Eventually though, the activists succeeded in getting Health PEI to provide information on its website on how to access abortion. The P.E.I. Medical Society also apparently instructed physicians that they could no longer turn women away, but many women are still unable to get information or referrals from their doctor.

Last August, three academics organized the first international abortion conference in Canada, titled: "The Unfinished Revolution." They chose Charlottetown as the location because: "We think it's time to bring abortion to the island -- both symbolically, as we're doing with the conference, and literally." The conference was a success with about 70 presenters, including prominent figures from the U.S., U.K., and other countries.

However, while the conference was being organized in the spring of 2014, it came to light that a proposal to provide abortion services in Charlottetown had been rejected by the P.E.I. government. A doctor from Nova Scotia had applied to Health PEI to travel to the Island twice a month to provide services. The business plan would have saved the province about $37,000 a year, and of course protected Islanders' health and lives and saved them money too.

The response? "Government has indicated that there is no desire to broaden the current abortion services; therefore, it would not make sense for Health PEI to put resources into a proposal that is not in line with government policy." And from then-premier Robert Ghiz: "We believe the status quo is working."

To be clear, there is no government policy, at least none in writing. I believe this elusive policy, as well as the lack of "desire" to provide abortion services and the cavalier statement that "the status quo is working," emanate directly from the privileged patriarchal minds of men who will never have to worry about becoming pregnant and who find it easy to disregard women's rights. Women are lesser beings after all, put on this earth to serve men and have babies. If they dare to shirk those duties, who cares if they get hurt by throwing themselves down the stairs or persuading their boyfriends to repeatedly punch them in the stomach?

The "status quo is working" belief violates the Canada Health Act, which requires provinces and territories to provide funded, medically necessary services on a uniform basis. P.E.I. is violating the principles of the Act that guarantee accessibility and universality. Because even though the province funds abortions for people who can go to Halifax, many can't navigate the complex bureaucracy, wait for weeks, or pay their own travel costs. Putting that burden on women and transgender people is also discrimination on the basis of gender and could be actionable under human rights codes. Further, law professor Jocelyn Downey points out that P.E.I.'s policy violates the Charter right not to be deprived of life, liberty, and security of the person, and that there is "no logic to the justifications" for the policy. It is arbitrary and not "in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."

Abortion in the provincial election

Islanders go to the polls on Monday, May 4 for their provincial election. Pollsters are predicting a safe win for the incumbent Liberals, who have been in power the last 12 years. But pro-choice Islanders won't have any better luck with the rival Progressive Conservatives (PC), who are equally eager to take the easy way out and do nothing. While the Green Party and NDP have both pledged to establish a full women's health clinic on the Island that would also do abortions, neither has a strong chance to win the election and implement those changes.

Abortion has become a major issue in the election campaign, however -- perhaps the biggest issue of all! PC Leader Rob Lantz confessed: "It's a very deeply held moral issue for many people. It's often the one and only issue that's raised when I'm campaigning…. They don't care about anything else, in some instances."

This admission reveals that the promise from both Lantz and new Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan (who took over from Robert Ghiz in February) to maintain the status quo does not come from policy or principle, or even personal religious belief. It's a combination of sheer ignorance and cowardice. I would venture to say that they both feel comfy in the pockets of the anti-choice movement with its skewed version of reality. They're afraid of losing votes if they promise to bring abortion services to the Island, seemingly unaware that a majority of Islanders now support doing just that. And they remain oblivious and uncaring that not doing so will continue to harm women, violate their Charter rights, and flout federal law.

A popular word that's been bandied about is "compromise." Former Premier Ghiz said that the current system is a "compromise" between conflicting sentiments on the issue, while Health Minister Doug Currie sees funding abortions in Halifax as a "fair compromise." But this compromise simply kowtows to anti-choice sentiment at the expense of women's health and lives. Government health-care decisions must respect human rights and ensure the common good, and never be dictated by religious ideology or the demands of a special interest group like PEI Right to Life.

At a leader's debate on April 27, Liberal leader and Premier MacLauchlan said:

"The real issue is where the barriers are. We have identified three -- what is timely and accessible information about the availability of abortion service. Two is about some of the preliminaries that are in place and some of it warrants some serious investigation and discussion as to how that can be improved, and the third is the cost for the travelling out of province to have the abortion. Those are the issues that the government should be addressing."

Why doesn't MacLauchlan seem to have any clue that all three barriers would be more than adequately addressed with last year's sensible and cost-saving proposal to provide abortions in Charlottetown?

It does not add confidence to see another man, federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, abandoning P.E.I. women with his recent refusal to support abortion services in P.E.I. Despite his "unequivocal" promise to defend a woman's right to choose at the federal level, Trudeau campaigned in P.E.I. for MacLauchlan on April 17 and shared some smooth empty platitudes with the media: "I have full confidence in the premier to make sure that women in Prince Edward Island have their rights respected, and that's something I'm reassured is in the capable hands of the premier right now." Well, Trudeau has quickly evolved into the consummate politician, hasn't he? One who understands that the immediate importance of getting elected outweighs principles and human rights.

I'm not an Islander myself, but I hope that continuing to bring national attention to the sorry situation in P.E.I. will help embarrass and shame the P.E.I. government into doing the right thing. It's time for P.E.I. to get out of its 1950's backwater and make the huge leap into the 21st century.

Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Image: Tigana/flickr

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