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Detail from Prince Edward Island's provincial flag.
Detail from Prince Edward Island's provincial flag.

Letter from PEI

Activists push lack of in-province abortion onto PEI agenda Add to ...

Some buttons are so hot no elected official wants to push them.

These divisive topics are sometime called “shield issues,” in that canny politicians would rather protect themselves from them than make hay off them.

This is happening federally, where MPs of all stripes fled any discussion on legalizing assisted suicide. And on Prince Edward Island, activists are forcing the lack of in-province abortion access onto the agenda even though both main parties have long supported the status quo.

Canadian women can get an abortion without leaving their own province or territory everywhere except Prince Edward Island and Nunavut.

“To be honest with you, it’s never been an issue that was placed in front of me as a former health minister,” said Doug Currie, who held the health portfolio from 2007 to 2010 and returned to it about a month ago. But he said he is “open to the conversation” now that it has been raised.

The province’s situation is defended on financial grounds by those who say that the province is too small to offer all services. And it has attracted support from those who see it as a moral decision, including a hard-line Catholic who moved to the province during a long court battle against his taxes funding abortion.

Under the current system, island women who want an abortion go elsewhere in the Maritimes. The procedure can be covered from the public purse, provided it is approved by their doctor and done in a hospital, but there is anecdotal evidence that some island women are paying their own way at a private clinic in Fredericton to expedite the process. The Canadian Medical Association’s official position on abortion includes that “there should be no delay in the provision of abortion services.”

A group advocating for abortion access formed recently and has been quick to make its presence felt. The PEI Reproductive Rights Association has held rallies – which were met by counter-demonstrators by anti-abortion supporters – and raised its concerns at the annual general meeting of Health PEI. Media attention has been piqued and the situation is being debated seriously.

This is happening absent any pressure by the Opposition Progressive Conservatives, who are content with the current situation. Health critic James Aylward argued that there is “just so much money to go around” in the small province.

“There are many services that are currently not available on PEI that islanders do have to travel off island for,” Mr. Aylward told the CBC.

But that argument is under attack as well. A letter to Mr. Currie from two officials with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association questioned the financial logic of sending women out of province.

It noted the price of providing abortions must be weighed against the hidden costs of paying pre-birth, delivery and other medical bills for women who didn’t want the children. And it raised the costs of treating injuries to women who attempt to induce their own abortions.

“Very little investment would be needed to create abortion services on the island,” argued the officials, who also called for the doctor referral requirement to be dropped. “Setting up procedural barriers ... is prohibitive and discriminatory.”

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