The Morgentaler Clinic was the only abortion clinic in the Maritimes. It performed 60% of the abortions in the province of New Brunswick. It was one of the only abortion options for the people of Prince Edward Island. And on April 10th, 2014, it made an announcement that sent the feminists of Canada into crisis mode: the clinic would close in July 2014 due to lack of funding.
The only reason the Morgentaler Clinic was able to stay open as long as it did was because Henry Morgentaler funnelled money out of his own pocket into the clinic. When he passed away two years ago, the clinic could not afford to stay open without government funding.
Even when the Morgentaler clinic was open, New Brunswick had an abortion access problem. In order to access hospital abortions, covered by provincial medical insurance, you needed to receive referrals from two doctors who would deem your abortion “medically necessary.” Then, a specialist would have to perform the procedure in one of two New Brunswick hospitals which allowed the procedure. If you did could not get a publicly funded hospital abortion, you could go to the clinic for your procedure but you would have to pay around $700 out of pocket. These restrictions were due to Regulation 84-20 of the provincial Medical Services Payment Act.
The closure of the clinic was a wake up call. The day of the announcement, the feminist group I coordinate planned a rally for exactly one week later. We’re called the Fredericton Youth Feminists and we existed at that time as a small youth-run activist group within the city of Fredericton. Through planning this rally, we unknowingly threw ourselves into the forefront of what would become a huge movement.
Though this movement was revived at this time, it was not new. People have been fighting for abortion rights in Canada for decades. In 1988, abortion was decriminalized in Canada and was defined as a medically necessary procedure under the Canada Health Act. Although provinces deliver health services, each province must follow the requirements of Canada Health Act. For New Brunswick to fail to provide accessible abortions violates both both the Canada Health Act and constitutional rights.
We created a Facebook event, a slogan and a simple image for the rally and invited all of our friends. When over 500 people confirmed their attendance to the rally in less than five hours, we realized this would be something big, and something important.
After quite a bit of media attention and local chatter, the day of the rally rolled around. Over 700 people gathered on the lawn of the legislature and demanded better access to reproductive healthcare. Political leaders spoke to the crowd; some receiving applause, some getting booed away. Clinic escorts, activists and uterus-bearing people spoke to the crowd and outlined our demands: a repeal of Regulation 84-20 and public funding for abortions in clinic settings.
After the rally, a reproductive justice activist and advocacy group, Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, formed. RJNB and the Fredericton Youth Feminists began to work together with other activists to keep the issue and the movement alive.
In June 2014, RJNB launched #SaveTheClinic, a crowdfunding initiative hoping to raise $100,000 to lease the Morgentaler Clinic building. Amazingly enough, because of hundreds of donations, big and small, from far and wide, we were able to raise enough money.
Despite the money being raised, the Morgentaler Clinic did close in July as planned. Though the money could not save the Morgentaler Clinic, it did provide the opportunity for new abortion providers to open what is now known as Clinic 554, a sex-positive, trans-inclusive family practice that also provides abortions. The clinic opened in January 2015.
While some media reported that regulation 84-20 was repealed it was actually simply amended. The two doctor rule was altered, and now it’s not required for two doctors to deem the abortion medically necessary. However, two doctors still must be involved, as one doctor must write a referral and another doctor must perform the abortion. The regulation changed the doctors’ experience but for the patient, the experience is essentially the same.
The government also announced they would be expanding abortion services by January 1, but it’s now April 17 and there have been no more abortion options created. In the summer they announced they might be providing abortions in the Moncton City Hospital, located 10 minutes away from where abortions are currently performed in the George Dumont Hospital. This would not create any further access, as those with unwanted pregnancies still have to travel to the same location.
RJNB and the Youth Feminists, with the help of supporters far and wide, were able to create an abortion option quicker than the New Brunswick government.
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of A Rally for our Right to Accessible Abortion. As painful as it was to be standing outside in the cold asking for the right to control my own body, the rally was the best day of my tiny young life.
As I sat back yesterday, thinking of how incredible it was that so much was accomplished in the last year, I was sadly reminded that we are still in a very tough situation. We’re in essentially the same position as this time last year, when the Morgentaler Clinic was open.
The difference now though, is that we have Reproductive Justice New Brunswick and the Fredericton Youth Feminists leading a movement for change. I can only hope that the momentum of this movement can pick back up again, to be as lively and prominent as it was that day of the rally, because we still aren’t done yet.
Sorcha Beirne is the coordinator of the Fredericton Youth Feminists.
This article first appeared in Gender Focus.