Fredericton – On August 3, Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin stood outside Clinic 554 to announce that the federal government would be providing $366,000 in funding to the University of New Brunswick (UNB) to conduct research to improve abortion services in New Brunswick. Atwin was joined by Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Saint John MP Wayne Long and Clinic 554’s Dr. Adrian Edgar.
The research project will be co-led by Tobin Haley, an assistant professor at Ryerson University and Jula Hughes, adjunct professor at UNB and dean of law at Lakehead University.
“Obviously we are very excited to have this research funding,” said Haley.
“It is going to be a community-engaged, mixed methods research project. We will go through primary sources, conduct interviews and focus groups, as well as develop archival research and other document reviews to really understand not just the barriers to abortions in the province but also how those barriers are experienced and what the impacts are. This is an opportunity for us to study this issue systematically,” explained Haley.
The research team also includes Reproductive Justice New Brunswick members: Karen Pearlston, professor of law at UNB; Jessica Taylor, a faculty member in the department of gender, race, sexuality, and social justice at the University of British Columbia; and Julia Hansen, a community-based activist and nurse.
Atwin, who has championed Clinic 554 and reproductive health care while a Green MP and now as a Liberal MP since crossing the floor in June, said the research will “look at historical data gaps and barriers to access between 2015 and 2020 and will focus primarily on the work done at Clinic 554. This research will identify the specific barriers faced by vulnerable populations when accessing abortions, from costs to transportation to stigma and discrimination.”
Adding to the announcement, Minister Hajdu encouraged sexual and reproductive health organizations across the country to apply for funding from $45 million set aside in the 2021 budget. Organizations can apply for funding for inclusive training materials for sexual and reproductive health-care providers, public awareness, and travel and logistical support for people needing it to access abortion services.
Dr. Edgar said he was excited by today’s announcement, but wasted no time in pointing out the lack of action on abortion access by the provincial government and Horizon Health Network, the province’s largest regional health authority.
After writing dozens of letters to Horizon Health about the need for surgical abortions outside hospital settings throughout the pandemic, Dr. Edgar said he was told by Horizon that “abortions are not a pandemic issue.”
“During the pandemic, we saw bus routes closed. Airplanes stop flying. We saw border restrictions. We saw people lose their jobs, especially people who work in precarious industries. We saw people lose income. We saw people become homeless because of the lack of rent control in New Brunswick,” said Dr. Edgar.
Dr. Edgar is calling on Horizon Health President and CEO Karen McGrath to resign for refusing to adequately provide health care during the pandemic. He also wants the contact information of Horizon’s elected board of directors to be made available to the public.
Currently, Medicare-funded abortions can only be accessed in three hospitals in the province: the Moncton Hospital, the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton, and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.
The Progressive Conservative government argues that abortion services in these three hospitals is enough and meets the requirements for access under the Canada Health Act.
Last December, Progressive Conservative and People’s Alliance members voted against a motion introduced by Caraquet Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault that called on cabinet to axe part of the regulation found in the province’s Medical Services Payment Act, that restricts Medicare-funded abortions to hospitals. No other Canadian province or territory has such a restriction on their books.
The Trudeau government recently withheld $140,216 in health care transfers, the approximate amount of funds that the federal government say should be spent on abortions in a year, to apply pressure on the government of New Brunswick to axe the regulatory barrier.
The award-winning Clinic 554, which housed a family practice and has provided specialized healthcare for LGBTQ+ patients in addition to abortion services, is now up for sale as a result of the lack of funding from the province, according to Dr. Edgar. The clinic, now significantly scaled back in its operations, still manages to provide some abortion and IUD services.
“As scientists, we know that abortions are safer in community settings. We see fewer visits to emergency rooms, fewer complications, infections and bleeding, and fewer hospital admissions,” said Dr. Edgar.
Hajdu said that the research out of UNB will make it easier to advocate for equality.
“It’s actions like this today, working with grassroots community organizations, working with researchers amplifying the voices of women, and the 2SLGBTQ+ communities who are often voiceless. You can’t address things that you can’t count. If those stories are not told, if those numbers are not calculated, if people are not actually having that information, it makes it that much harder to advocate for equality,” said Hajdu.
Hajdu cited jurisdiction in response to a question about why the federal government would not simply fund the procedure in the absence of provincial funding. UNB law professor Kerri Froc tweeted, however, that the federal government does have the ability to directly fund matters that are within provincial jurisdiction.
Froc is an advisor on a Charter challenge filed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) that will attempt to have the regulation prohibiting abortions in clinical settings in New Brunswick declared unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, a New Brunswick court ruled that this lawsuit can proceed in the public interest, even awarding the advocacy organization $5,000 in costs after the Government of New Brunswick attempted to block the action arguing that it would be better for it to be brought forward by a pregnant woman attempting to access an abortion than by the CCLA.
“Clinic 554 is the only provider of second trimester abortion care in New Brunswick. With people having to go to another province to access a service that we could provide in New Brunswick and the government refusing to provide even interim funding for that service during a pandemic, we have to ask ourselves what is the role of misogyny in the regulations of this province,” Dr. Edgar said.
Tracy Glynn is an organizer with Reproductive Justice NB.
With files from Aditya Rao.