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Access to abortion dwindling in rural British Columbia

A recent study by the University of British Columbia states that rural abortion services are “nearly exclusively operating-room based and usually under general anesthesia”, and that the largest urban areas in the province reported 90 per cent of all abortions in 2010.

Keith Brofsky/©PHOTODISC

Women who live in rural B.C. face more barriers when it comes to abortion services, and the situation has only gotten worse over the past decade, a study says.

The study, which consisted of questionnaires and interviews with B.C. abortion providers, found the three largest urban areas in the province reported 90 per cent of all abortions in 2010, despite the fact only 57 per cent of reproductive-age women lived there.

The study by physician and University of British Columbia assistant professor Wendy Norman said the number of rural abortion providers declined more than 60 per cent over the decade before 2010. It called the alignment between where women live and where services are available "sub-optimal."

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In addition, the study said rural abortion services are "nearly exclusively operating-room based and usually under general anesthesia, despite national and international recommendations for safe provision using local anesthesia."

It said most rural abortion providers identified this as one of the barriers to service.

"Moving surgical abortions out of operating rooms and into local ambulatory care facilities has the potential to lower costs while improving service availability in rural areas," the study said. Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Vancouver-based Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said in an interview that something needs to be done to ensure women seeking an abortion do not have to travel hundreds of kilometres.

"The study does support what we've been noticing just anecdotally. The study was just for B.C., but we hear reports from across Canada about dwindling access in rural areas and the north," she said.

Ms. Arthur said access in larger metropolitan areas has improved, mostly because clinics have opened in many cities over the past 25 years and taken up a lot of the slack from hospitals. She said a little over half of all abortions are now done in clinics, but such facilities are more rare in rural areas.

She said an abortion can be done quickly on an outpatient basis and there is no reason to use full operating rooms.

The study said several rural abortion providers reported physicians or nurses had resigned due to harassment or stigma. No urban providers reported such resignations.

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A B.C. government spokeswoman said Health Minister Terry Lake was unavailable for an interview on Thursday.

When asked if access to abortion services in rural areas had gone down in recent years, the spokeswoman said services are "on an on-demand basis."

She referred further comment to Dr. Norman.

Dr. Norman was out of the country and could not be reached on Thursday. Her three co-authors for the study, which was published late last month, were Judith A. Soon, Nanamma Maughn, and Jennifer Dressler.

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