Higgs government blunts opposition abortion motion, removes references to Clinic 554

·5 min read

The Progressive Conservative government has used its majority in the legislature to neutralize an opposition motion calling for the funding of surgical abortions at Fredericton's Clinic 554.

MLAs voted Thursday to take out references to the clinic and instead ask the province's two health authorities to look at whether existing abortion access complies with the Canada Health Act.

The original motion, which would not have been binding, called for the funding of abortions at the clinic and for the repeal of Reguation 84-20, which prevents medicare from covering the procedure outside a hospital.

Caraquet Liberal MLA Isabelle Thériault introduced the motion and pleaded with the nine women sitting as PC MLAs to support it.

"Women, sisters, we need you now," she said. "Silence is not an option. History will not be kind to those who turn their backs on the rights of women. Actually we could make history today."

She added: "I hope that the women here who have gone into politics did it to advance the cause of women. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"

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During the summer election campaign, Fredericton North PC candidate Jill Green, now the minister of transportation and infrastructure, promised to "fight to keep those services available for our community" and to "protect the people who use that clinic."

But she didn't commit to securing medicare funding for abortions at the clinic, and Green supported her party and government in gutting the Liberal motion.

"I argue that the issue at stake is about access to abortion, not Clinic 554," she said.

Green said she supports a women's right to choose and questions why abortion is offered in two hospitals in Moncton but not at the one in Fredericton.

But she said the Liberal motion was about "providing support to an individual business with a group of lobbyists trying to influence decision related to public health."

She also said while she had "open and honest discussions" with voters about the issue during the campaign, she was also attacked by online "keyboard warriors" from outside the province.

CBC News/Jacques Poitras
CBC News/Jacques Poitras

Green promised to work for adequate access provincewide but said she would "not advocate for an individual clinic to be funded."

Instead the PCs voted for an amendment calling on the government to "to task the regional health authorities with determining if abortion services in New Brunswick follow the Canada Health Act."

"If they feel the access does not meet the requirements of the Canada Health Act, they must determine how to meet that requirement while keeping within the principles of the Medical Services Payment Act," said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

Horizon Health has already taken a stand on the issue, passing a resolution earlier this year asking the province to fund abortions outside hospitals.

Two hospitals in Moncton and one in Bathurst provide surgical abortions that are funded by medicare, and the province says that is enough to meet demand given the limited financial means of the government.

The Liberals tried to amend the PC amendment to restore the original intent of the motion, but that was defeated 27-20.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

Thériault said it was absurd to still have to debate access to abortion in the present day.

"How can this still be possible? It makes no sense. Sometimes when I enter this assembly I think I'm entering the Twilight Zone. I'm coming here in 2020 to debate a motion on reproductive health. It blows my mind."

Shephard said the 2017 decision to cover the abortion pill Mifegymiso had led to a 30 per cent reduction in surgical abortions in hospitals.

She said the share of all abortions done using the pill went from 40 per cent in the first year it was available to 58 per cent in the second year.

But Thériault said there was no way to accurately measure how many women wanted or needed an abortion and were unable to get one.

"This is not an accounting exercise. We have to take into account the human factors. This is not a spreadsheet column. These are people. These are women."

Feds say N.B. violating Health Act

Clinic 554 charges patients between $750 and $800 for abortions. Medicare does not cover because Regulation 84-20 in the province's Medical Services Payment Act excludes abortions done outside hospitals from funding.

The federal government says that violates the Canada Health Act, which requires provinces to cover all medical procedures inside or outside of hospitals, and says they must not "impede … reasonable access" to services.

Higgs said during the election campaign the province was complying by providing access in three locations and that if supporters of Clinic 554 disagreed, they should go to court.

In October the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed notice that it will do that.

Clinic 554 also provides other services including to LGBTQ people, patients with HIV, those with mental health issues and survivors of sexual assault.

The clinic was put up for sale in October 2019.

Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC
Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC

In September, Dr. Adrian Edgar, who runs the family practice, said it was no longer viable to "siphon" money paid by medicare for other services to subsidize the cost of abortions for patients who couldn't afford them.

He said at the time another doctor was interested in taking it over, running it as a sexual health centre and continuing to provide abortions.

No one at the clinic could be reached Thursday for an update on its status.