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With abortion clinic closed, N.B. women turn as far as Maine and Montreal

The operating room at Fredericton’s Morgentaler abortion clinic is shown in 2002.

DIANE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Pregnant women from New Brunswick are travelling to Maine and Montreal to obtain abortions after the province's only private abortion clinic shut down last summer, angering pro-choice advocates who say the government is moving too slowly in removing barriers to the service.

Staff at abortion clinics in Augusta and Bangor in Maine said they have seen a spike in the number of telephone inquiries and visits from women from New Brunswick since the summer when the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton closed, citing a lack of government funding.

Ruth Lockhart of the Mabel Wadsworth Women's Health Centre in Bangor said the independent clinic used to see one or two women from the province over six months. There are now women from New Brunswick at every weekly clinic, sometimes with five or six at a time, she said.

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"My concern is with the women who can't do that – who can't get time off from work, who can't find childcare, who can't afford the fees or don't have a passport," she said in an interview.

"To have to leave your country? I don't know, that doesn't seem right to me. none of that is fair to women."

Another clinic about an hour south in Augusta is also getting more calls from women in New Brunswick who can now only receive abortions at two hospitals in the province after getting referrals from two doctors who deem the procedure medically necessary.

Jennifer Thibodeau, spokeswoman with Maine Family Planning's Institute for Reproductive Health, said women from New Brunswick and other parts of Atlantic Canada are driving several hours to the clinic in Augusta for the service and then making the long drive home.

"We certainly are seeing more calls," she said. "People have expressed to us over the phone that it's difficult to make such a long trip, but they've done it."

More distressing for some abortion providers is the claim that women are having to wait weeks to have the procedure done in New Brunswick, sometimes pushing them up against the deadline for when some facilities will do an abortion.

France Desilets, director of the Morgentaler clinic in Montreal, said they are getting calls from women who are well along in their pregnancies because they have been trying to get referrals from doctors in New Brunswick and then waiting for the procedure to be done in hospital.

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"What's worrisome is that we're seeing women who are more advanced than they should be and they've been trying to get services in their own province," she said. "They get tossed around and told to go here and there and when they call us, their pregnancies are advanced to second trimester."

Desilets said they are seeing women from New Brunswick in the clinic every week or two, something that rarely happened before the closure in Fredericton.

A spokeswoman from Horizon Health Network, the provincial health authority, said she did not have information on abortion wait times. The provincial Health Department did not respond to requests for an interview on wait times.

Premier Brian Gallant has promised to convene a panel to review the barriers to access to abortion in the province, suggesting he would repeal a regulation that requires an abortion be done at certain hospitals and only after two doctors have certified that it is medically necessary.

Marc Poirier, a spokesman in the Premier's office, said Friday that the panel had not yet been struck and work hasn't begun on reviewing barriers.

The cost of an abortion in Maine is about $500 (U.S.), while two clinics in Montreal charge about $600 (Canadian) before 13.9 weeks gestation. One said it had reduced the fee to $400 for women from New Brunswick to help offset travel costs.

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Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based group that represents abortion providers, has called on the government to develop the capacity to provide timely abortions by expanding services at hospitals or funding a private clinic.

"They clearly are not meeting people's needs," she said, adding that she has asked to be part of the panel but hasn't heard back. "Really, should women have to cross the border to obtain a quality abortion?

"I mean, come on, New Brunswick needs to step up to the plate and provide the care that women in the province need. It seems pretty basic."

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