Canada’s Pro-Life Province: 30 Years without Abortion Access in PEI

By Katrina Ackerman

On Tuesday, January 5, Abortion Access Now PEI announced that it is filing a lawsuit against the Prince Edward Island government for failing to create access to abortions in the province. The lawsuit is one of many attempts by abortion rights activists to provide PEI women with equitable access to abortion services and reaffirms the notion that PEI is Canada’s pro-life province.[1]

Perhaps the label is justified: it’s been thirty years since abortion was an option in the province. On 3 June 1986, 1,374 residents trekked to the city of Summerside’s Prince County Hospital to determine the future of PEI’s sole remaining abortion committee. With a 978 to 396 vote count, attendees removed all access to therapeutic abortions.[2] Since an abortion had not been performed in PEI since 1982, this was only a symbolic victory, but the decisive vote did signal the official end to the practice on the Island.

After a decade of lobbying medical professionals, hospital board members, and politicians, the PEI Right to Life Association rebranded PEI as Canada’s first pro-life province.[3] The slogan was solidified in 1988 with the passing of the wildly popular Resolution 17. When the Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Morgentaler (1988) decriminalized abortion nationwide, the PEI government quickly responded to public pressure by formulating an anti-abortion resolution. Members of the Legislative Assembly approved Resolution 17, which argued that the majority of citizens believed life begins at conception and, therefore, the government would demonstrate “the political will to protect the unborn fetus.”[4] Access to abortion was effectively out of reach.

Passionate activism and widespread support for Resolution 17 in the legislature signalled the success of PEI’s anti-abortion movement throughout the 1980s. And this fervour would shape the future of the Island’s abortion politics. Despite increasing pressure from pro-choice groups, PEI residents were ushered out of province to terminate their pregnancies.

In 1995, the Liberal government formed an agreement with Halifax’s Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre to provide women with publicly funded out of province access to abortion services, but the referral requirement remained insurmountable for women with family doctors opposed to abortion. Women without referrals were forced to travel out of province and pay private clinic fees. Others without the financial means attempted to self-induce.[5]

The formation of PEI Reproductive Rights Organization in 2011 and the publication of a UPEI research study on abortion in 2014 reopened discussions about PEI’s anti-abortion policy. In response to extensive lobbying from abortion rights activists, the PEI government made abortion slightly more accessible in June 2015. By signing an agreement with the Moncton Hospital, the government removed the doctor’s referral requirement for a publicly funded abortion. Abortion Access Now PEI is not satisfied with this concession, however, and is challenging the government to provide in-province services.

As PEI celebrates its 30th year as what many have dubbed a ‘life sanctuary,’ it’s important to reflect on the hurdles PEI women confront due to limited access to reproductive health care in the province. With Health Canada’s recent approval of the abortion pill, RU-486, it’s unclear how many women will continue to travel out of province for surgical abortions. While many hope that RU-486 will help bring to a close Canada’s history of unsafe and clandestine abortions, recent stories of women struggling to find post-medical abortion care on the Island suggests that there is still a long way to go before PEI women have equitable access to abortion services.

 

Katrina Ackerman is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Regina. Her current research explores the economic factors that shaped governmental and non-governmental opposition to abortion access in Atlantic Canada.

 

[1] Katrina Ackerman, A Region at Odds: Abortion Politics in the Maritime Provinces, 1969-1988,” PhD Dissertation, University of Waterloo, 2015, 85-88 <https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/9777/Ackerman_Katrina..pdf?sequence=1>

[2] “Few Islanders Expect to See Abortions Available for at least the Rest of the Decade,” Journal-Pioneer, 9 June 1986.

[3] For an in depth discussion, see Katrina Ackerman, “In Defence of Reason: Religion, Science, and the Prince Edward Island Anti-Abortion Movement, 1969-1988,” CBMH 31, 2 (2014): 117-138 <http://www.cbmh.ca/index.php/cbmh/article/view/1644/1636>

[4] “Resolution 17,” Journal of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Prince Edward Island, 3rd Session, 57th General Assembly (1988): 90-91, 117; Ackerman, A Region at Odds, 195.

[5] Colleen MacQuarrie, Jo-Ann MacDonald, Cathrine Chambers, “Trials and Trails of Accessing Abortion in PEI: Reporting on the Impact of PEI’s Abortion Policies on Women,” (Charlottetown: 2014): 3-16 <http://projects.upei.ca/cmacquarrie/files/2014/01/trials_and_trails_final.pdf>

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