Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution comes to PEI because of unsafe abortion practices

Colleen MacQuarrie, Associate Professor and Chair Psychology Department, UPEI

A surgical abortion is a simple 10-minute procedure that once was available to women on Prince Edward Island. In 1986, a strong anti-choice lobbying group shut down this service and for the past 28 years their actions have continued to deny women access to this health service in PEI.[1]  Instead, most island women have traveled to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and further to attain abortion services. Recently, we exposed that despite the ability to offer a more cost effective service in PEI, the province refused to repatriate the service, preferring to keep women in a state of exile as medical refugees.

PEI stands alone in refusing women any provincial access to this service, but that doesn’t mean that abortions don’t take place here. An examination of the provincial billing records over the past 18 years tells the real story. Those records show that without legal abortions on PEI, unsafe abortion practices resulted in up to two illegal and/or failed abortion attempts each year.

Complications followed many of these attempts, which suggests that those undertaken without complications were unreported. This finding has historical precedence; research indicates that when illegal abortions were performed, only those that went wrong came to the attention of medical and legal authorities.[2] In addition to the illegal and failed abortions, between 6 and 80 unspecified abortions were recorded each year. An unspecified abortion is an artifact of the coding used to report on procedures for billing purposes and reflects the coders’ level of knowledge about the cause of the abortion.  Among these unspecified abortions there may have been illegal or failed attempted abortions.

In research conversations, women who tried to access abortion, their friends and family, professionals, medical personnel, and advocates tell of multiple barriers that block access to abortion. Access is described as a maze of multiple paths leading to dead ends, barriers, and delays. In response to a lack of support or resources to find a safe abortion as well as outright refusals to refer women for safe procedures, some women report having acted out of desperation in ways that were self-harming. As one woman recalls, “I wasn’t having a baby. Um, I wasn’t. So if it got to a point where it looked like that was probably happening…I think the ways that I tried to induce [a miscarriage] probably would have gotten more risky to my health…and then…suicide probably would have been a viable option at the end…”

Others tried to induce an abortion by their own hand or with the help of unqualified people such as a boyfriend. A common method to induce an abortion was to ingest a large amount of chemicals, including alcohol in the hopes of causing an abortion. This practice may account, at least in part, for the high rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in PEI. Another desperate measure saw women inflict physical assaults on their bodies to cause miscarriage. An alternative safe abortion method is the medical abortion which involves ingesting prescription medication. However in the absence of local surgical termination, and without medical supervision, this choice, in at least one case, resulted in repeated maltreatment in the local emergency room. What is striking about these findings is that the ways PEI women self-abort bear disturbing similarities to findings from studies conducted on illegal abortion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[3]

Finally, some women were forced to continue their pregnancies, give birth, and parent against their will. This outcome is a far cry from the every mother willing, every child wanted mantras that has characterized birth control and abortion rights campaigns for the better part of a century.[4]

All women talked about harms to their health in the maze of trying to access abortion services in PEI. Even for women with adequate supports and resources, significant barriers persisted and in many cases, negatively impacted women’s physical, mental, and emotional health.  Women who were poorer, younger, isolated, or with fewer supports were the most harmed and became the most desperate.

PEI is both an important case study and an important site for our conference because it illustrates how a province can frustrate a federal law to subvert the constitution. Provinces can regulate access to abortion based on their authority over health care, which is precisely the mechanism through which PEI has continually shirked its responsibility to ensure women’s protected right to “life, liberty, and security” as powerfully articulated by Justice Bertha Wilson of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Morgentaler decision. Equality requires “reproductive justice”—the power for women to decide if and when we will have children and how many we will have. In fact equality cannot exist without reproductive justice. The P.E.I. government’s persistent emotional and cowardly stance on abortion opens the province to a costly Charter challenge. PEI stands alone in denying a right to half its population for local access to this safe, low cost, health care service. Reproductive in-justice is a mean fact of life for PEI women.

Dr. Colleen MacQuarrie, Associate Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Prince Edward Island, is an academic activist whose research programmes work within community on questions of social justice. Liberatory frameworks for community based participatory action research inform her projects. Drawing from the community’s understanding of the historic conditions that give rise to reproductive injustice in PEI she has animated a resurgence of interest in the topic of safe abortion access for PEI women.

Further reading:

Full research report: Trials and Trails of Accessing Abortion in PEI:  Reporting on the impact of PEI’s Abortion Policies on Women:


3 page summary: Trials and Trails of Accessing Abortion in PEI:  Reporting on the impact of PEI’s Abortion Policies on Women:


[1]On the campaign to eliminate access to abortion services in PEI see, Katrina Ackerman, “In Defense of Reason: Religion, Science, and the Prince Edward Island Anti-Abortion Movement, 1969-1988,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (2014, forthcoming).

[2] See, Angus McLaren, “Illegal Operations: Women, Doctors and Abortion, 1886-1939,” Journal of Social History 26, no. 4 (1993): 797-816; Tracy Penny, “‘Getting Rid of my Trouble’: A Social History of Abortion in Ontario, 1880-1929” (master’s thesis, Laurentian University, Sudbury, 1995).

[3] See, Angus McLaren and Arlene Tigar McLaren, The Bedroom and the State: The Changing Practices and Politics of Contraception and Abortion in Canada, 1880-1990, Second Edition  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997);  Penny, Getting Rid of my Trouble’.”

[4] The Bedroom and the State; Brenda Margaret Appleby, Responsible Parenthood: Decriminalizing Contraception in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Christabelle Sethna, “‘We Want Facts, Not Moral!’ Unwanted Pregnancy, the Toronto Women’s Caucus, and Sex Education,” in Ontario Since Confederation: A Reader, edited by Edgar-André Montigny and Lori Chambers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000): 408-428.

2 thoughts on “Abortion: The Unfinished Revolution comes to PEI because of unsafe abortion practices

  1. How sad that the women of PEI are still in such straits with little to no access to abortion services. The historical parallels are chilling.

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