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In PEI, the right to choose: No longer 'the shame of being shipped off the island'

Prince Edward Island Premier Wade MacLauchlan speaks at a press conference in Charlottetown on Thursday, March 31, 2016.

John Morris/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When Ashley Fraser needed an abortion a decade ago, she had to rely on a friend to drive her to another province. The trip took hours, involved a hotel stay, and was wrapped in shame and anxiety.

As a resident of Prince Edward Island, Ms. Fraser and hundreds of women like her had no possibility of getting an abortion at home. That is set to change. In a historic reversal, PEI is to join other provinces in Canada in providing abortion services within its borders, ending a 34-year ban that made the island the last outpost of legal resistance in the country.

The change, announced Thursday by Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan in the face of a court challenge by a pro-choice group, is being heralded as a victory for reproductive choice for women.

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"The idea that women aren't going to have to go through the fight I did, and feel the shame of being shipped off the island and hide, is so important," Ms. Fraser, a 29-year-old mother of three, said Friday from PEI. "I hope women never know what it's like to jump over barrier after barrier. I didn't think this day was ever going to come. It's been so long, it feels surreal."

The group behind the legal challenge, Abortion Access Now PEI Inc., said it didn't know until the last minute how the government of PEI was going to respond to its suit. After three decades of political opposition to abortion in PEI, where the issue remains politically divisive, advocates wondered if the Premier would announce he was going to fight it.

"It was surprising to all of us," said Ann Wheatley, co-chair of the group, adding that the news was met with jubilation. "A lot of us were in tears because it had been 30 years, and involved a lot of women along the way. There was a real sense of relief."

Since the 80s, women in PEI have had to travel off the island to obtain abortion services; advocacy groups say others have tried to self-induce abortions, sometimes at peril to their health. As recently as last week, Ms. Wheatley's group was raising money to help a woman get an abortion in New Brunswick.

The PEI government recently began to cover some of the cost of hospital abortions in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; last year, it paid the cost of 73 abortions in Moncton and 49 in Halifax. However, dozens more women have paid out of pocket to obtain the procedure privately in Fredericton.

The PEI government's about-face was praised by feminist icon Gloria Steinem.

"I'm glad to see you have just had another victory … for safe and legal abortion," Ms. Steinem said at a conference in Ottawa.

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"Together, we are moving towards the place where we will understand that reproductive freedom is a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech, like freedom of assembly, that the ability to control our bodies, women and men, from the skin in, is fundamental," Ms. Steinem said.

Canada can now claim all provinces are poised to provide abortion services, a counterpoint to the United States, where the issue remains politically volatile and Republican front-runner Donald Trump has said that women who undergo abortions should face punishment. (He later tried to recant).

The conflict in PEI underscored the issue of uneven access to the procedure in Canada. Abortion remains more difficult to obtain outside major cities; the fact PEI is an island, with an active pro-life movement, raised additional obstacles for women, experts say.

"Women had to cross a body of water," said Christabelle Sethna, an associate professor in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa. Economic hardships, along with restrictive access to abortions in neighbouring New Brunswick, added to their problems. "Women faced a triple whammy."

Abortion rights groups say they believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's staunch pro-choice stand played a role in influencing PEI's government; before the last election, he said new Liberal candidates had to agree to vote in favour of a "woman's right to choose."

(After PEI's announcement on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said "a woman's right to choose is fundamental in Canada.")

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Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said a contact in the PMO told her Thursday that Mr. Trudeau had spoken to Mr. MacLauchlan "and gave him encouragement to provide [abortion] services on the island."

"Standing up and strongly saying you're pro-choice is a really important message coming from the federal government," Ms. Arthur said.

Ms. Wheatley said her group would be vigilant to ensure the government has abortion services available by the end of the year. PEI says it will set up a hospital-based reproductive health centre that would also offer counselling and pre- and post-natal care.

"Our priority," Ms. Wheatley said, "is to make sure the plan rolls out as promised."

PEI's move comes nearly three decades after the Supreme Court struck down the federal criminal law on abortion; in reaction to that 1988 top-court ruling, PEI passed a resolution opposing abortions on the island.

With a file from The Canadian Press

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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