A Fredericton abortion clinic's plan to close becomes federal election issue

A Fredericton abortion clinic's plan to close becomes federal election issue

The impending closure of New Brunswick's only privately funded abortion clinic has become a federal election issue.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May attended a rally in support of Clinic 554 in Fredericton on Friday afternoon outside the minister of health's office on King Street.

"For a campaign that's been somewhat dominated by questions about which party stands more firmly and solidly in favour of a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion, it's somewhat ironic and saddening that in the middle of the federal campaign a key point of accessibility for women in New Brunswick — and I want to stress as well for the LGBTQ+ community — is threatened to be closing imminently because of a decision by the [Progressive] Conservative government here," May told reporters.

Clinic 554, which is also a family practice that specializes in transgender and LGBTQ care, is up for sale and faces closure if the provincial government continues to refuse to cover out-of-hospital abortions, the medical director announced Thursday.

Friday's hastily organized rally drew an estimated 150 people from all walks of life, many of them toting signs and banners and chanting "One, two, three, four, save Clinic 554."

"This clinic must stay open," said May, noting her party's platform calls for increasing accessibility to abortions across the country, including New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and parts of the territories.

"When you have a [Progressive] Conservative provincial government that doesn't want to provide support for things every Canadian has a right to, then under the federal Health Act, the federal government has an obligation to step up," she said.

"And I would call on … the other federal party leaders to make that clear right now so this clinic can stay open."

Trudeau 'concerned'

The contentious issue has landed on the federal leaders' list of talking points.

During the French-language federal leaders' debate, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said by letting the Fredericton clinic close, the province is "not there to defend the rights of women." 

"We are very concerned by the decision of the Conservative government in New Brunswick, which is taking a step backwards for women's rights," Trudeau said.

Gary Moore/CBC

The clinic's medical director, Dr. Adrian Edgar, said he's "very excited" the issue has garnered attention at the federal level and called May's attendance at the rally "mind-blowing."

It's "more than I ever thought would ever happen, that the country would watch us the way that it is," he told the crowd of supporters.

Edgar said he believes health care should be a provincial matter. "But if we can't do it right, then maybe we just need a little help."

CBC News asked to speak with Health Minister Ted Fleming, who was not available for an interview.

Department of Health spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said in an email Thursday that the province's position on abortions remains unchanged.

New Brunswick will only cover 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.

Medical society speaks out

Edgar said he has been overwhelmed by the support of doctors in the community who "can't believe that our health minister would allow, you know, a vital resource to be lost in New Brunswick."

He has also been copied on letters people "from all over" are writing to the health minister, he said.

The president of the New Brunswick Medical Society is calling on the provincial government to live up to its legal obligations and support Clinic 554.

Gary Moore/CBC

Dr. Chris Goodyear said the clinic provides a valuable service to women and the LGBTQ community and deserves full government support. 

"Right now patients, women, in the province, have limited access to this service," he said. "We need to improve that."

If the clinic closes, Goodyear said, it will have a severe impact on New Brunswick's health-care system.

"Women currently in Fredericton, having this service, have to pay out of pocket for it — under the Canada Health Act, women should not have to pay for this service out of their own pocket."

Protecting women's rights

Women who can't travel to the hospitals in Moncton or Bathurst, who have passed the gestational limit of 13 weeks and six days for a hospital-performed surgical abortion, or who choose to go to Clinic 554 for other reasons, must pay up to $850 for the procedure it offers up to 16 weeks of pregnancy.

Goodyear said many patients in the Fredericton area don't have the resources to travel to Moncton or Bathurst and services need to be expanded outside of those two municipalities.

"That's why that service exists in Fredericton," he said. "Because there is a need for it outside those communities … And it's not just a one-time travel. There's more to that service than just the actual procedure."

Shane Fowler/CBC

It also includes counselling, which requires several visits. 

Goodyear said most provinces across Canada fund private clinics that provide abortions.

"Women have a right to that service."

Information isn't available on the number of abortions performed at the Fredericton clinic. Statistics show 699 abortions were performed at New Brunswick hospitals in 2017, substantially fewer than the 1,791 performed in Nova Scotia that year. 

Province desperate for doctors

The closure of the Fredericton clinic won't just affect access to abortion.

CBC

After the closure, about 3,000 people who rely on the clinic as a family practice, will join the estimated 20,000 other New Brunswickers already on a waiting list for a family doctor, Edgar said Thursday.

In addition to the lack of abortion funding, Edgar said the large practice is not viable because he's paid on a fee-per-service basis, as opposed to salary, and he routinely deals with complex care needs, including transgender patients and people with addictions.

"These are not five-minute appointments," he told CBC News. He estimates he sees about one patient per hour.

With more than 100 vacancies for physicians in New Brunswick, Goodyear said the province can't afford to lose any more doctors. 

"The loss of this clinic means the loss of a family doctor in the Fredericton area that is providing care to a part of our population that requires a certain subset of skills," he said.

Goodyear has reached out to the provincial government and is optimistic he'll have a chance to work with officials to find ways to keep the clinic open.

He wants the province to work alongside the New Brunswick Medical Society and Clinic 554 to come up with a funding solution.

In the past, the medical society has been in talks with the province over women's reproductive health and LGBTQ health and how to expand it across the province.

"It's been difficult trying to convince the government to come up with funding for the services outside of hospitals," he said.

The province has said it doesn't fund private health-care services.