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PEI drops opposition to abortion, plans to provide access by year’s end

A protester holds a pro-choice sign at Victoria Park, in Halifax, during a demonstration for access to abortion services on the one-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, May 29, 2014. An abortion rights group in nearby Prince Edward Island has announced its intent to file a motion to the supreme court of P.E.I. petitioning for improved access to the procedure on the island, as Islanders currently must travel to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia to access abortion clinics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Prince Edward Island expects to be providing abortions by the end of the year, as the country's last holdout gave up its opposition in the face of a legal challenge from a women's advocacy group. The last elective abortion on the island was in 1982.

Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan, who also serves as Justice Minister, said the government is announcing its historic about-face on abortion now because a 90-day period to respond to a notice of a legal challenge ends Monday.

"I think the character of all places changes and evolves," he told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. "It's one of those things that comes at its time."

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Mr. MacLauchlan, a former law dean at the University of New Brunswick who grew up in PEI, cited women's right to equality in health care as a key reason for the change – accepting that the challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, begun in January by Abortion Access Now PEI Inc., was correct in law.

"I believe it's true that government has the right to decide what health-care services are available under the Canada Health Act. That wasn't the basis on which we formed the view that a change was in order. Rather, it was that we are currently funding the service in Moncton and Halifax. The question becomes whether on equality grounds, it could be justified not to provide the service in the province."

Pro-choice advocates had used the province's best-loved fictional character, Anne of Green Gables, on campaign posters. But ultimately, the continuing power of the Charter of Rights led to the government's change of heart.

It is the biggest Charter victory since the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling last year ending the country's ban on physician-assisted death, according to Nasha Nijhawan, a Halifax lawyer who helped spearhead the legal challenge.

The old abortion policy "was really a black mark on Canada in terms of meaningful reproductive autonomy for women, and I think this was a huge step in the right direction." She praised the Premier for stressing women's equality rights in announcing the new policy.

The Supreme Court struck down the criminal law on abortion in 1988, in a Toronto case involving abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler. But the court did not require provinces to provide abortions. That same year, PEI passed a resolution opposing the procedure.

Access Now, in research done for this year's legal challenge, found that women in PEI had tried to induce abortions by methods such as ingesting chemicals or a punch in the stomach – though under a little-known 1995 arrangement made by then-premier Catherine Callbeck, the province would pay for abortions done in Halifax. (The current government promised publicly last summer to pay for abortions in Moncton and Halifax.)

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The 1995 Halifax arrangement was largely kept from the public, according to Colleen MacQuarrie, a psychology professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. In 2011, she posed as a "Jane Doe" and phoned the provincial Health Department to find out how to obtain a government-funded abortion.

"I said, 'I would like an abortion, but I don't know how I would go about doing that.'" The government employee was very helpful and looked in earnest for information, but came up empty, Prof. MacQuarrie said.

Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion group, condemned the new policy.

"Premier Wade MacLauchlan, Health Minister Rob Henderson and the Minister for the Status of Women, Paula Biggar, claimed that they have listened to both sides of the debate, but in reality the only position they cared about was the one they shared with pro-abortion activists," Jim Hughes, the group's president, said in a statement. "Shame on them for bringing abortion to the province."

The Health Department is beginning to study the logistics of creating a hospital-based reproductive health centre that will provide pharmaceutical-based and surgical abortions, and possibly include a fertility clinic, counselling and post-partum services.

Prof. MacQuarrie said she expects that patients will be able to "self-refer," as they have been doing for abortions in Moncton.

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Premier MacLauchlan would not promise that no extra requirements, such as the approval of two doctors, would be imposed on patients seeking abortions, but said, "I don't suppose so." As for whether doctors might be forced to provide abortions, he said, "I'm not supposing it will come to that."

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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