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N.B. Liberal abortion pledge draws close scrutiny from doctors, others

New Brunswick premier designate Brian Gallant addresses a news conference in Fredericton, Wednesday, Sept.24, 2014.

James West/THE CANADIAN PRESS

New Brunswick's new Liberal government has to be prepared to put money behind its pledge to remove barriers to abortion, the province's doctors say.

And pro-choice and anti-abortion groups are watching closely to see what the government plans to do about a regulation that, for 25 years, has severely limited women's access to the procedure.

Premier-designate Brian Gallant has publicly declared that he is pro-choice, and promised to deal quickly with the barriers to abortion access after his government is sworn in on Tuesday. But first, it will have to decide whether to eliminate the regulation that forces women to get approval for abortions and determines who can perform them.

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Mr. Gallant's government will set up a committee to look into the access problems, which will have to figure out how to increase the availability of the procedure, where to find the money and staff, and how to manage without the recently closed Morgentaler Clinic, which once provided most of the abortions in the province.

This weekend, about 100 doctors will gather in Fredericton for the New Brunswick Medical Society's annual meeting, and abortion access will be on the agenda.

"When the government gets established, we'd like to know what their plan is for women's reproductive health services in the province," Lynn Hansen, president of the medical society, said in an e-mail. "The government could pursue a variety of options that range from funding abortions in out-of-hospital clinics, to providing them in a larger number of public facilities, or keeping the status quo."

But she notes that these options could "have resource impacts on the public system."

"For example, performing abortions in more hospitals would require the right staffing levels to do them," she wrote. "Under the current setup, we believe that a number of the abortions previously performed in the private clinic will now be performed in the public system."

The medical society has offered to be part of any review, which could include human rights and public policy experts.

Mr. Gallant will not comment. His spokesman, Marc Poirier, said the focus is on the transition right now.

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"In our platform, we have committed to identifying barriers to access and eliminating them," Mr. Poirier said. "That work will begin after the new government is sworn in next week."

New Brunswick is unique on publicly funded abortions. A regulation brought in 25 years ago requires a woman to get the approval of two doctors to have an abortion. The procedure must be performed by an obstetrician/gynecologist. And only two hospitals – in Moncton and Bathurst – perform abortions.

The Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton closed in July. It provided about 60 per cent of the province's abortions every year, or 600. Pro-choice advocates now fear long waits at the two hospitals, or that more women will have to travel to Quebec, Ontario or Maine.

For New Brunswick Right to Life executive director Peter Ryan, the status quo is fine.

"We'll have concerns if in fact they proceed to recommend the regulation be dropped," he said. "The other practical issue is – if that's the case, what does it mean in terms of affecting a policy? Does it mean that there are more abortions in hospitals? Does it mean that there is funding for clinics? What does it mean?"

For Kathleen Pye of Reproductive Justice NB, getting the regulation repealed is the priority – although she adds, that "doesn't necessarily mean that things will change right away."

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But, she added, it will "set the tone for what the next steps are going to be."

For example, she said, the change could allow general practitioners who have extra training to set up clinics.

Michael Rachlis, health policy analyst, says it is "about time" for New Brunswick to deal with this issue, given that Canada has had no law restricting abortion since 1988.

Dr. Rachlis said devising a policy is not complicated – the procedure is safe and can be done outside a hospital. And funding should be provided not only for doctors, but nurses, counsellors and other costs. Putting together a committee on access is for "political purposes," Dr. Rachlis suggested. "Quite frankly, if I got together with one or two people who were providing abortion services, we could probably write that policy in less than a day."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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