CLCY's Alissa Golob (left) and Sarah MacDonald (right) with PEI MLA James Aylward.

CLCY’s Alissa Golob (left) and Sarah MacDonald (right) with PEI MLA James Aylward.

On Jan. 5, Abortion Access Now PEI issued a press release announcing it was suing the Prince Edward Island government to force it to provide taxpayer-funded abortions on the island.

Last summer, newly elected Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan liberalized the province’s abortion regulations, making it simpler for women to obtain surgical abortions off the Island in New Brunswick, paying for the procedure and relaxing rules regarding doctors signing off on the procedure as medically necessary before being reimbursed by PEI Health.

The group Abortion Access Now PEI was founded in December for the purpose of lobbying for increased abortion access on the Island, saying that requiring women go to another province was an unjustified burden. Last year, a documentary from Vice TV claimed women’s health was being jeopardized on the Island as pregnant women resort to illegal abortions, including underground chemical abortions.

PEI is the only province in which surgical abortions are not carried out, but in November new federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said Ottawa would look at increasing abortion access to under-served populations including PEI, remote rural regions, and northern Canada.

Abortion Access Now PEI co-chair Ann Wheatley said, “For over two decades, we have advocated for on-Island, safe, legal access to abortion.” Co-chair Colleen MacQuarrie, a professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward Island, said, “PEI’s discriminatory and unlawful abortion policy must end.” She said the lawsuit “will seek full and unrestricted access to on-Island, publicly-funded abortion services for PEI women.”

Abortion Access Now PEI filed a notice of application in the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island against the provincial government because according to the Crown Proceedings Act, any group filing a lawsuit against the province is required to provide notice of 90 days. Wheatley said, “nothing short of a court order will prompt the government to comply with its obligations to P.E.I. residents under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

The legal challenge is supported by the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), which argues “PEI’s abortion policy violates the right of PEI women to equal access to health care services under section 15 of the Charter,” because it “is a state-imposed barrier to the right and ability of individual women to exercise control over matters fundamental to their physical, emotional and psychological integrity.” Furthermore, Kim Stanton, legal director of LEAF, says, “difficulty, uncertainty, delay, lack of access and stigma cause PEI women physical and psychological harm, including harm to conscience and dignity.

PEI Right to Life replied in a statement on Jan. 6, “there is no constitutional right to abortion in Canada.” PEI Right to Life president Holly Pierlot noted the Supreme Court’s 1988 Morgentaler ruling “actually recommended Parliament create laws to protect the rights of the pre-born child.” Pierlot maintains that the province has jurisdiction under the Canada Health Act “to determine which services are funded publicly and by what means.” Noting that the CHA only requires provinces to fund “medically necessary sevices,” Pierlot said “abortion is rarely that.” She said the rhetoric of the self-described pro-choice movement admits the procedure is not medically necessary but rather an individual choice.

Sarah MacDonald, provincial coordinator for CLC Youth PEI, said in a Jan. 6 statement, the legal challenge by a “minority of activists” is attempting “to force the government to acquiesce to their agenda” while “access to life-affirming health care is still an issue.” MacDonald wondered why “these activists aren’t suing the government to increase access” to trauma care or cancer treatment, that is also lacking on the Island.

The province has been sued for its abortion policy before. In the 1990s, abortionist Henry Morgentaler took the provincial government to court over its refusal to pay for services in his private abortion facilities in Halifax, N.S. and Fredericton, N.B. In 1996, the province won the case on appeal to the Supreme Court of PEI, and continued to pay for the service if provided in a Nova Scotia hospital.

Island pro-lifers say they are optimistic that the courts will once again rule in favour of the province, noting there is no public support for expanding abortion services to the Island.