Legal abortion access won't be coming to PEI anytime soon, affirmed the two men who have a shot at being premier of the Island after the May 4 election.
At a Tuesday morning debate on women's issues, newly minted Progressive Conservative leader Rob Lantz said point-blank he won't be bringing abortion services to the province.
He joins his Liberal counterpart, Wade MacLauchlan, in that decision, dashing pro-choice advocates' hopes that the province will provide surgical abortion for the first time in 30 years.
After pressuring the last administration, abortion advocates had hoped new leaders of the province's two main political parties (the Liberals and Tories have been trading power since 1854) might change the province's policy.
But that won't be the case for the time being.
MacLauchlan's position was made public earlier, but for many in the room Tuesday, Lantz's was new.
"I've travelled the province and even some of those who self-identify as pro-choice have indicated to me they recognize the current arrangement as an acceptable compromise," said Lantz.
Many in the audience erupted in sarcastic laughter after Lantz's comment.
"It was a pretty significant response," said Emily Rutledge, a spokeswoman for the Abortion Rights Network.
"It was the very first time the whole room—or anyone in the room—laughed at an answer. That never happened again throughout the debate. Then he didn't get any applause from that point onward."
The abortion policy was established by the Island's incumbent Liberal government under former premier Robert Ghiz.
The province will pay for an abortion in Halifax, but will not perform them on-Island. Anyone needing an abortion is responsible for getting themselves to Nova Scotia and back out of their own pocket.
It's about a four-hour drive from Charlottetown to Halifax. Bridge fare to leave the Island costs $45.50, plus gas, road tolls, and accommodations.
Both the Greens and the NDP promised a women's health clinic, which would include abortion services, and called the Liberal and PC's reaction "unacceptable." Neither party has a shot at forming government: each were polling between 10 and 15 percent before the writ was dropped.
"Jane"—not her real name—is a woman in her 20s who lives and works in Charlottetown. She estimates her abortion last year cost about $200.
But she considers herself one of the lucky ones—her boyfriend was supportive and drove her there, and they had a place where they could stay overnight for free. She called in sick to work.
They both have jobs that allow them to save a bit of money, and it wasn't in the winter, when the Island is hit with a barrage of snowstorms that often make travel impossible.
Still, navigating a health care system where abortion is taboo was difficult. By the time Jane managed to get to Halifax, it was a full month after she discovered she was pregnant.
"It was a lot harder and more arduous than I thought it would be, and I had been following the pro-choice movement on PEI for the last few years," she said.
"I think [politicians] just have no idea what the actual process is and aren't trying to understand. I didn't know what it was like before I had to get one, honestly."
Abortions aren't illegal on PEI. In the 80s, an elected hospital board voted to keep abortion out of the main hospital. When the Ghiz government was pressured in 2011, government officials said no doctors wanted to perform abortions, and that paying for abortion would be another cost to an already-poor province.
Pro-choice lobbyists responded by finding a doctor who was willing to come to the province part-time to provide the service. Internal documents obtained by CBC News show their proposed plan was actually more cost-efficient than paying for Islanders' abortions off-Island.
But politicians with the provincial government clamped down, repeating the "status quo" is a good compromise.
"I think they are limiting access for political reasons," said Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker. "No government, whether red or blue, has had the fortitude to do anything about this."
At the heart of the issue is the massively popular anti-abortion movement, which is well-funded and active, often buying billboards and full-page ads in the province's newspaper.
They promote the Island as Canada's last "Life Sanctuary."
Rutledge is an active member of the Abortion Rights Network, as well as an academic who researches how pro-choice advocates have been treated after coming out as pro-choice on PEI.
"A lot of people have had sort of job instability, a lot of people feel they can't speak out because they'll lose their jobs," she said.
PEI Right to Life did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
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