They’ve Got the Lawyers, They Need the Access

Women in the province of Prince Edward Island have been fighting for their reproductive rights for years. It is the only Canadian province that does not offer surgical abortions. Women’s groups have tried a number of unsuccessful political channels, but most recently realized that nothing short of a court ordered solution will cause the government to change its position on the issue.

Kelly McMillan of Nijhawan McMillan Barristers litigation boutique in Halifax shares the ins and outs of the Abortion Access Now PEI challenge against the PEI government. McMillan, along with partner Nasha Nijhawan, are the lead counsel representing the Women’s group.

Currently, island women must travel to Moncton, New Brunswick to receive the procedure. A recent change from the previous policy of having to travel to Halifax for treatment after having received a referral from a physician. Although the procedure itself is covered by the province, the cost of travel and accommodations are the responsibility of the women.

Some of the issues that the government is ignoring with these arrangements are these:

  1. Travel across the Maritimes is pricey, especially considering that hefty $46 toll to cross the Confederation Bridge.
  2. Women are unable to drive after having completed the procedure and most procedures are performed in the mornings, requiring women to stay over night out of province.
  3. Many women will have to arrange a support person to accompany them, booking time off from work and even childcare services. This is imposing on the access of young women or women in abusive relationships or lower income situations.
  4. Women’s access had up until recently been conditional upon the “approval” of their doctor by requiring a referral by a physician. Visit if you wish to read stories of island women sharing their experiences, which range from being denied health care post procedure to stories of doctors requesting sums of money in exchange for a referral.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s keep in mind that this is a simple 10 minute procedure that is able to be performed by any primary care physician. It is not classified as a complex or specialized procedure in the provincial health plan that would have justification to be regionalized and require travel off island. Essentially the same procedure is being offered to women with incomplete miscarriage who must access a D&C.

Doctors have come forward with a cost effective business plan in hopes to offer the service to island women but were halted by the former Minister of Health, Doug Currie, as their proposals are not consistent with the provinces policy to not offer abortions. This policy was written in 1988.

So what is Abortion Access Now PEI doing about it? Along with the Nijhawan & McMillan they have challenged the government on the following:

  1. Administered Law – The former Minister of Health, Doug Currie, was acting outside the scope of his authority. He was upholding the anti-abortion policy when his duty was to uphold the PEI Health Care system. He failed to uphold his duty under the statue to administer health care in accordance with the government health plan which outlined services that will be provided in island hospitals, including gynecological surgery.
  2. The Charter Arguments – The group is arguing that the government is violating women’s rights to equal access of health care services as they are singling out a medical procedures only required by women. The courts have recognized that pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination; therefore, singling out a procedure that is only required by pregnant women with differential treatment can result in discrimination. They are also addressing that this policy infringes on women’s rights to choose and their autonomy over important decisions about their body and family life.

The current abortion policy perpetuates the stigma associated with the procedure. The Prince Edward Island government is sending a strong signal to island women that they do not approve of their freedom of choice. They are reinforcing the historical disadvantage that women have faced trying to exercise control over reproduction. Overall, once a government decides it’s going to offer a health care system, it must do so in a manner that does not discriminate. They must provide services equally.

So far, many islanders have voiced their support on this issue. In fact, posters displaying the beloved Anne of Green Gables have begun to appear across the province. The posters, created by @iamkarats, are addressed to the Premier in support of island women and are requesting access now. Hopefully this message is received before the court rulings for this case on April 4th.

Have an opinion or want the government to concede? Voice it to Prince Edward Island’s Premier, Wade MacLauchlan. The office telephone number is: 902-368-4400.

A huge thank you to my cousin, Kelly McMillan, for sharing her knowledge and translating legal jargon for my understanding.