By Ann Wheatley and Sandeep Prasad
Originally published in the Guardian
Ann Wheatley is co-chair of Abortion Access Now PEI. Sandeep Prasad is and Ottawa-based lawyer and Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
35 years of organizing and action (and the threat of a lawsuit later), abortion services are finally being offered in every province across Canada.
Almost a year ago today, in response to legal action brought forward by Abortion Access Now PEI, the Prince Edward government announced it would provide abortion services in the province for the first time since 1982. This is a huge victory for the generations of women, trans people, and allies who have advocated for reproductive rights in a province that until recently was proudly dubbed by the anti-choice movement as Canada’s “life sanctuary.”
Despite the fact that abortion is recognized as an essential medical procedure and has been legal for almost three decades in Canada, for the past 30 years, women and trans folk have had to leave the province at their own expense in order to gain access to abortion services. Each year, some 100-200 women have had to travel to neighbouring provinces, and in some cases even further afield, to procure abortions. The costs and distance have made this difficult for many, if not impossible, for others.
Now that abortion services are available at the Prince County Hospital, Island women and trans people will finally have access to abortion in their own province. Construction will also soon begin on a Women’s Wellness Centre, which, when it opens, will provide not only abortions, but also a wide range of reproductive and sexual health services, including pre- and post-natal care, post-partum mental health services, STI screening and testing, and support for Islanders seeking fertility treatment off-Island. Much needed, and much welcomed, services.
While there are no laws regarding gestational limits for abortion in Canada, the new PEI clinic will provide abortion up to 12-weeks gestation. Along with local activists, we are hopeful those limits will eventually be extended to align with other provinces. Sometimes, a few weeks can make a real difference. Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights receives daily calls from people across Canada who are trying to access abortion but are unable to do so, either because they are too far along in their pregnancy or because of long wait times. That will mean many will have to continue to travel out of province, mostly at their own expense.
Another important step will be the way in which medical abortions (abortion pills) are provided in PEI. The World Health Organization’s gold standard for medical abortions (labeled as Mifegymiso in Canada) was finally approved by Health Canada almost 2 years ago, and is now available and starting to be prescribed in Alberta and British Columbia. Used by millions worldwide, the medication has a proven track record in countries like the US and France. In Canada, it has the potential to improve access, especially for women living in remote or rural communities where there are no surgical options. Much will depend, however on how provincial governments, including PEI, decide to regulate and pay for the drug.
For 35 years, women in PEI have fought to have their reproductive rights recognized. Without their efforts, there would have been no lawsuit, no government “doing the right thing,” no women’s wellness centre, no abortion services. At the same time that they were marching, writing letters and meeting with policy-makers, women were quietly raising funds to support other women and trans people who needed to leave the Island to access the medical service they were denied by their own province. While successive governments and politicians defended a policy that clearly denied women and trans people their fundamental human rights, while they ignored the harm their action, or more appropriately, inaction, was having, grassroots activists created networks, navigated a broken system and facilitated access. Grassroots activists gave women control over their own bodies and now it’s the government’s turn.
The reintroduction of abortion services in PEI is a tremendous cause for celebration, and a tribute to every single person who contributed to the 35-year long movement.
– Ann Wheatley is co-chair of Abortion Access Now P.E.I. Sandeep Prasad is an Ottawa-based lawyer and executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.