PEI government finally tackles abortion issue

Premier Wade MacLauchlan recently announced a deal that will effectively offer Island women abortion on demand

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CORNWALL, PEI, Jun 7, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Premier Wade MacLauchlan deserves credit for tackling an issue his political predecessors over the past three decades have mostly ignored or only approached with fear and trepidation.

PEI has long been the only province where surgical abortions are not performed. The provincial medicare program would only pay for abortions performed in a hospital in Halifax, provided the patient had a referral from two Island doctors and had an ultrasound and blood work.

According to the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in the case of abortions rights pioneer Dr. Henry Morgentaler, those type of obstacles shouldn’t exist. However, Island governments of both political stripes maintained the province was in compliance with the court ruling since they were funding abortions under limited circumstances. The status quo was just fine, thank you very much. From time to time, there were rumblings of a court challenge but that never materialized.

Abortion a hot-potato issue in PEI

Until MacLauchlan arrived on the scene, both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives (the only two parties in the last 100 years ever to form a government) have shied away from the issue. It is very rarely brought up in the legislature. When both parties have the same position, it doesn’t lend itself to much of a debate. The New Democrats and Green parties, however, have favoured abortion on demand conducted within the province. Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, who campaigned for the opening of a women’s reproductive centre, is a member of the current legislature.

A step forward, or a step backward?

Last year, a Moncton doctor offered to set up a satellite office on PEI and Health PEI (the Crown Corporation that administers the health system) was told by former Premier Robert Ghiz’s government to scrap the idea because it was inconsistent with government policy.

Several groups lobbying for greater access tried to make it an election issue. During the campaign, MacLauchlan stopped short of having the service provided on PEI but agreed better access was needed. It seemed like he was using the time-worn technique every politician knows well – the art of deflecting criticism.

However, he has now proven to be a man of his word on this issue. He recently announced a deal that will effectively offer Island women abortion on demand – as long as they are willing to go to New Brunswick. Island women will now be able to dial a toll free line at the Moncton Hospital and set up an appointment without any preconditions. The procedure will be paid for by the provincial health system.

Health Minister Doug Currie looked a little uncomfortable during the news conference announcing the government’s new position, especially when he said the status quo was not acceptable. Perhaps that is due to the fact he was also health minister under Robert Ghiz for four years, during which he argued the status quo was working well.

Understandably, those promoting abortion rights were pleased with the move. Jane Ledwell of the Advisory Council on the Status of Women called it the most significant announcement on abortion in three decades.

Just as understandably, those opposed to greater access viewed it as a step backward. Holly Pierlot, president of the P.E.I. Right To Life Association, called the decision “dreadful.” She is predicting that, without the “sober second thought” the referrals provided, there will be a major increase in the number of abortions.

Latest move won’t be the last

The one thing both sides and the provincial government agree on is the fact this is not the end of the issue. Currie called the move a “key first step” to what could be having the service provided within the province.

Just how quickly that might happen is anybody’s guess. In a small province where everybody knows everybody, having the procedure done out-of-province may suit many island women just fine. Maybe it will even be the status quo for another 30 years.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for over 30 years.

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