The federal government will provide $366,000 to the University of New Brunswick to research challenges women face accessing surgical abortions in the province.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin made the announcement Tuesday in Fredericton outside Clinic 554, New Brunswick's only privately funded abortion clinic.
The research will focus mainly on the work done at Clinic 554 between 2015 and 2020 and identify gaps and barriers, such as costs, transportation, and discrimination.
"You can't improve what you don't measure," said Hajdu.
New Brunswick Medicare only covers abortions provided at the two hospitals in Moncton — the Moncton Hospital and the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre — and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.
"Many times this province, [Progressive] Conservative provincial politicians have declared that there doesn't need to be increased access, that the services are providing care that meets everybody's needs. But we know that's not true," said Hajdu.
"We can't tolerate that even one woman in this province doesn't have access to the kind of care that she needs, doesn't have access to the full reproductive choice that allows her to control her own body."
The federal government would be outside its jurisdiction if it were to fund the health service directly, she told reporters, because it's a provincial responsibility,
But Ottawa can help provide advocates with data to demonstrate the need for clinics and "make it impossible for New Brunswickers and voters to ignore those stories."
It's "about bringing those voices to light and giving that information, which is power, to the people who are advocating and who will use that information to let all New Brunswick know about the barriers that face their daughters, their sisters, aunts, the people that they love, the LGBTQ people in their lives that are excluded from care in traditional settings."
Premier Blaine Higgs was unavailable for an interview Tuesday and a comment was not provided via email.
He has previously said providing abortion services in three hospitals is enough to meet the requirements for access under the Canada Health Act.
Organizations across the country that improve access to sexual and reproductive health care can also apply for funding from the $45 million committed in the 2021 budget for supports, Hadju announced, such as travel and logistical support for people who could not otherwise access abortion services, inclusive training materials for sexual and reproductive health-care providers, and public awareness activities.
Last week, during a visit to Moncton, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he would continue to push New Brunswick to fund abortion services at Clinic 554, and cited a reduction in federal health transfers to New Brunswick of $140,216 as evidence he is following through on a 2019 promise to "ensure" clinic abortions are funded.
On July 23, during a visit to Fredericton, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the federal government would announce "in the coming days" how it plans to ensure public funding for abortions at Clinic 554.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the province to fund abortions at the clinic.
Asked whether the data being gathered could prove useful as evidence in court cases that challenge the constitutionally of New Brunswick's actions, Hadju said it was difficult to answer because it's speculative.
"I can say that additional information is always helpful, whether it's for litigants, whether it's for researchers, or whether it's for program designers, or whether it's for MLAs who are trying to change the law to make sure that women have equal access to health care in this country."
Clinic 554, which was also a family practice that specialized in transgender and LGBTQ care, announced in 2019 it would soon close, blaming the province's refusal to fund abortions at the facility.
Despite that warning, the clinic is still partially open, offering abortion and IUD services, but it relies on support from a national advocacy group and on director Dr. Adrian Edgar's income from his work as a doctor for the Canadian military.
Edgar welcomed the research funding announcement, calling it timely.
He said he learned last week that Horizon Health Network CEO Karen McGrath informed the government "that because the number of procedural abortions being done in hospital had decreased during the pandemic, that the need had decreased as well.
"That leap of logic astounds me."
Edgar contends the barriers to abortion have increased and the need "has never been higher."
McGrath has said the number of women seeking abortions at the Moncton Hospital has decreased 20 per cent over the last five years, meaning there's not enough demand to warrant more access in other hospitals. "It is our position that there is no need to establish another service," she wrote.
Jula Hughes, Dean of Law at Lakehead University and adjunct professor at UNB, who will lead the research project with Tobin Haley from Ryerson University, said there hasn't been a community needs assessment before.
"Anecdotally, there continues to be concerns expressed that the access is not adequate. I think some of those questions are about geography. So what does it mean for people who are travelling from places that are far away from Moncton or Bathurst?
"And then also regarding access to services in a way that doesn't require to visit, or doesn't require cancelling work, or being able to access services in a manner that's trans-friendly or supportive of the person's choice to terminate a pregnancy?"
The research, which will seek the experience of New Brunswick patients and perspective of medical professionals, is expected to take 18 months.
It will include peer-reviewed scholarly publications, a bilingual website with summaries and infographics and two community updates.
"Being able to make decisions about your own body is a human right, one that is supported by having access to appropriate health care, including the full range of sexual and reproductive health services. Unfortunately, we know that barriers still exist that limit some Canadians' health care choices," said Atwin.
"Creating effective evidence-based policies and programs takes data, data that doesn't always exist," she said.
"By understanding who is left out and why, we can make changes that improve access for everyone."