Abortions have become nearly impossible to access in New Brunswick, forcing those in need to terminate pregnancies on their own.
A group of people protesting New Brunswick's harsh abortion restrictions. Photo via Jaden Fitzherbert.
Because abortions are nearly impossible to access in New Brunswick, people in need of the procedure have begun terminating their pregnancies themselves.
In 1994, the province banned abortions in clinics outside of hospitals. Federal rulings changed that in 1995, but people needing the procedure were forced to pay out of pocket. Since then, the province’s Morgentaler Clinic saved many from unwanted pregnancies. But following its closure in July, the government’s restrictions on abortion are too tight to accommodate people’s needs. Newly sworn-in premier Brian Gallant has pledged to remove barriers to abortion in the province, but has not yet come through with anything in the way of solid action.
Jaden Fitzherbert is with Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, an advocacy group created after the news broke that the clinic was going to close. She says at least one woman that she knows of has taken four misoprostol to induce a miscarriage.
Generally taken in conjunction with methotrexate or mifepristone (or RU-486/the "abortion pill"), misoprostol is not FDA-approved in Canada—but it is available online. Fitzherbert tells me the woman took only the misoprostol, and that the miscarriage was not a complete one. She had to go to the hospital.
“Thankfully, she was fine and she ended up having a miscarriage and not dying, which was fantastic,” Fitzherbert says.
At this point, there is no way to be sure how many people are resorting to misoprostol or other at-home abortion methods. But Kathleen Pye, the chair of the activists’ group, says she’s sure more people across the province are pursuing DIY abortion techniques.
“I guarantee it’s happening,” Pye says, “and it’s unbelievably frustrating.”
Pye says as the weather worsens the situation will become even more dire, and she fears more people will feel forced into performing their own abortions.
“The current government doesn’t get how serious this is… We really need the government to step up,” she says.
Reproductive Justice NB tried to raise the money to save the clinic, but though they surpassed their first fundraising goal of $100,000, they couldn’t raise enough to keep it going. The group maintains that two harmful regulations need to be repealed immediately. The first is NB Regulation 84-20, Schedule 2 (a.1) of the Medical Services Payment Act, which stipulates that, for the procedure to be funded, two doctors must sign off that an abortion is “medically required.” It also stipulates that the procedure be performed in a hospital by an OB/GYN doctor, even though it could just as well be carried out by a general practitioner or nurse practitioner.
The other regulation, found in Section 2.01, prohibits abortion clinics like the Morgentaler Clinic from receiving government funding. The specific wording reads, “entitled services furnished in a private hospital facility in the Province.”
Because it’s so tough to have an abortion in New Brunswick, people are forced to visit clinics outside of the province, whether in St. John’s, Montreal, or Maine. Most people the group hears from are heading to Maine for their abortions. Earlier this month, half of the patients to walk through the doors of one Bangor clinic were from New Brunswick. But that option will only work if you have a passport and some extra cash. Otherwise, as Fitzherbert puts it: “Uterus-havers are SOL.”
Those looking to have a medical professional perform their abortion in New Brunswick have just two hospitals to choose from. It’s not the Chalmers in Fredericton, or the Regional in Saint John, as one might expect. The hospitals are in Moncton and Bathurst, which are about two and a half hours away from one another. Only two doctors in the province, apparently, are willing to perform abortions.
New Brunswick’s newly appointed premier, Brian Gallant, has towed the party line to a degree, making vague references to a woman’s right to choose, and asserting that he, himself, is pro-choice.
But since he was sworn in two weeks ago, both Pye and Fitzherbert say, Gallant has not so much as responded to an email from Reproductive Justice NB. The group created a sassy timer to monitor his days, hours, minutes, and seconds of inaction.
I tried to get Gallant on the phone to see what, exactly, he plans to do about this. I left voicemails and sent emails, and finally I got his press secretary. I was duly informed that Gallant probably wouldn’t get back to me—he was busy showing support for the Energy East pipeline, I was told.
The health of uterus-havers has become an unfortunate political pawn in the province. Justin Trudeau says Liberal MPs elected in 2015 will be expected to be pro-choice, so Gallant doesn’t have much of an option but to nod in agreement.
But New Brunswick is a conservative province, no matter which party is in power. Pye says she wouldn’t be surprised if Gallant was using abortion to pander to an audience that rarely gets enough attention. His lack of clarity appears to be a tactic to both maintain support and keep activists from both sides off his case.
“If he speaks up too loudly, he could lose all of the people who are just mad at the Conservatives,” Pye says.
Fitzherbert is getting worried the premier won’t come through at all.
“During the election, it seemed like he was saying what everyone wanted to hear, on both the pro-life and pro-choice side, and not committing yes or no.”
“We’re just trying to get him to do something, and he’s not. It’s really frustrating,” she says over the phone.
So far, Gallant is convincing no one. Yet, he has all the power.
“Brian Gallant is the head of women’s equality, which is very fascinating,” Pye says dryly. It’s not too surprising, given that there are all of two women in his cabinet.
Meanwhile, there is a long waiting list to get in and see the doctors who do perform abortions. Fitzherbert says people are waiting upwards of ten weeks to get in and have the procedure, which creates an additional hurdle unless the person knows about the pregnancy within the first couple of weeks. In January and February, Pye says, there’s generally an increase in the number of people needing an abortion, and that will mean even longer wait times.
For students, single mothers, and others facing financial challenges, the costs are prohibitive. If you live in New Brunswick and don’t have a valid Medicare card, you’re looking at a cost of $2,000, even if you’re a Canadian citizen. Essentially, it’s cheaper to just go to Maine, where it costs about $500. But traveling to Maine is not a long-term solution for the province. Pye says the clinics there are becoming overloaded.
“[The current regulations are] a gross violation of our rights in Canada,” Pye says. She adds that change needs to happen, and fast.