Fredericton – Reproductive justice activists have turned on a timer to put pressure on the new Premier of New Brunswick, Brian Gallant, and his cabinet. The timer, which started on October 7th, counts the days of inaction on abortion access since the new government was sworn in.
“The point of the timer is to count every day, hour, minute, second that people in New Brunswick are at risk, due to unnecessary regulations and laws… It’s to hold the new government accountable,” says Jessica Taylor, a spokesperson with Reproductive Justice New Brunswick (RJNB).
RJNB would like to see two sections of the New Brunswick Medical Services Payment Act repealed, asserting that it serves as a significant barrier to abortion access.
Put in place by Frank McKenna’s Liberal government in 1989, Regulation 84-20, Schedule 2 (a.1) of the Medical Services Payment Act dictates that two doctors approve that an abortion is “medically required,” and that the procedure must be performed in a hospital by a specialist in the field of obstetrics and gynecology.
A second regulatory barrier identified by RJNB is Section 2.01(b) of the Act that prohibits public funding of otherwise “entitled services” (such as abortions) in private facilities, if such services are offered in public institutions such as hospitals.
The McKenna amendments were regarded by abortion rights activists as a way of limiting access to abortions following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision, R. v. Morgentaler, which effectively allowed Dr. Morgentaler to legally perform Medicare-funded abortions in his clinics.
Then-Premier McKenna notoriously said at the time, “If Mr. Morgentaler tries to open a clinic in the province of New Brunswick, he’s going to get the fight of his life.”
Morgentaler established a Fredericton clinic in 1993, which at the time of its closure this past July was performing 60% of abortions in the province. The clinic closed because it was no longer financially viable. Up until his death in 2013, Morgentaler was personally subsidizing the abortions of women who could not pay.
With the closure of the clinic in Fredericton, abortion clinics south of the border in Maine are reporting an influx of New Brunswick women accessing their services.
Gallant has taken a decidedly pro-choice stance, promising to identify and eliminate barriers to abortion access through the creation of a panel of experts to study the issue. However, groups such as RJNB want to keep up the pressure on the new government to move swiftly and eliminate barriers to abortion access.
“We are very clear on which barriers are already identified… those regulations need to be repealed immediately,” Taylor argues.
According to Taylor, other barriers to abortion services in New Brunswick have been identified, including the difficulty finding a doctor in the province. “Sixty percent of us [New Brunswickers] are without family doctors,” says Taylor. Other barriers include abortion services restricted to two hospitals (the Georges Dumont Hospital in Moncton and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst), the costs of transportation to access services and wait times. For many New Brunswick women trying to access abortion services, these barriers are simply too much.
The regulations can be repealed by the provincial government immediately. Creating or repealing a regulation to provincial legislation can be done at will by cabinet, and does not require the approval of the Legislative Assembly. It was through this same process that amendments to the Medical Services Payment Act was created by a McKenna-led cabinet in 1989.
Taylor would like to see Premier Gallant and his new cabinet–including newly-minted health minister Victor Boudreau–take this step, and move towards the immediate repeal of the regulations that restrict access to abortions.
While groups such as RJNB welcome Gallant’s pro-choice rhetoric, their “Days of Inaction Timer” is meant to keep this new government’s feet to the fire: “Actions speak louder than words. This timer can be as good as he [Gallant] wants it to be, or as terrible for him as he allows it to be,” explains Taylor.
In response to the timer, Gallant was quoted by CBC requesting that New Brunswickers be “a bit patient,” and has insisted that his government will identify and eliminate barriers to accessing abortion services in the province.
But for now, the timer keeps ticking as New Brunswickers wait for a response from their new government on abortion access.
Shawn Martin is a student in the St. Thomas University’s Social Work Department and interning with the NB Media Co-op.