The Morgentaler abortion clinic in Fredericton will close at the end of July following a 20-year fight with the New Brunswick government over funding.
The clinic held a news conference on Thursday to explain the decision, which will make it even more difficult for women to get abortions in New Brunswick — a province that already has one of the most restrictive policies in Canada.
The province's Department of Health has always refused to cover abortions performed at the clinic, making it the only province in Canada with a private abortion clinic that isn't funded by medicare.
“Regulation 84-20 remains on the books and New Brunswick women will now have no option to access abortions in the province except by meeting its discriminatory and medically unjustifiable requirements,” according to a statement issued by the clinic.
“Had the province provided funding for clinic abortions, or paid for abortions for women without ability to pay, the clinic would not be closing. To make matters worse, Regulation 84-20 makes it impossible for the majority of New Brunswick women to access an abortion in one of the two hospitals where the service is provided.”
The Morgentaler clinic is the only private abortion facility in New Brunswick and the only one east of Montreal.
The province pays for abortions at two hospitals, but only if a woman gets approval from two doctors who certify the procedure is “medically necessary.”
"It breaks my heart to have to do this. It absolutely does," clinic manager Simone Liebovitch told CBC News as abortion rights supporters rallied in front of the clinic.
"I'm not sure what women are going to do after we leave. I really have no idea," she said.
"Women deserve equal access to reproductive health care. We've been saying that for 20 years. I can only hope that when this door closes, there'll be other doors opening up."
Health Minister Ted Flemming had little to say heading into the New Brunswick Legislature, referring reporters to an issued statement that indicates the province will stick with the status quo.
"Women will continue to have access to medically necessary abortions in the province with the approval of two physicians," the statement said.
Liebovitch contends the required physician referrals pose a barrier to access. "We’ve repeated that over and over and over again," she said.
"There’s a problem of women who don’t have doctors, there’s a problem of women who have anti-choice doctors.”
The Morgentaler clinic opened in June 1994 and has provided abortion services to more than 10,000 women.
The current fee for the procedure is $700 before 14 weeks of pregnancy, and $850 between 14 and 16 weeks.
The clinic says it has never been able to meet its expenses and financial shortfalls were covered by Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who died nearly a year ago.
“In the past 10 years, the clinic has contributed over $105,400 to subsidize abortions for women unable to pay the full amount,” the clinic said.
There have been other financial headaches for the facility.
The clinic sustained more than $100,000 in flood damages in 2008. While other downtown Fredericton businesses were given financial compensation, the clinic did not receive any government cash because the building was owned by Morgentaler, who was not a New Brunswick citizen.
The clinic would have closed in 2008 if Morgentaler hadn’t paid for the repairs himself, according to the statement.
Planned closing a 'sad and dark day'
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, called the announcement a "very sad and dark day for New Brunswick women.
"The province created this crisis and showed callous disregard for women’s health needs. As we’ve seen in P.E.I. where there’s no access, some women will harm themselves in attempts to induce an abortion," Arthur said in a statement.
"If N.B. does not improve access quickly, women’s health and safety is at risk, especially young women and disadvantaged women."
The Morgentaler clinic was also used by women from Prince Edward Island.
P.E.I. women whose abortions were covered by medicare generally travelled to Halifax. But if the procedures weren't being covered, they would often visit the Fredericton clinic, making up about 10 per cent of the clientele.
Medicare has no reciprocal funding agreements on abortion with other provinces. So, an Ontario student at the University of New Brunswick would have to pay $1,800 at hospital or go to the Morgentaler clinic.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Fredericton area resident Jaden Fitzherbert, one of the abortion rights supporters who gathered outside the clinic on Thursday, carrying signs with slogans such as "My body, my choice," and "Keep abortion safe and legal."
"We're going backwards," agreed Marina King.
"Everything else is moving forward and we're going backwards," said Fitzherbert.
Peter Ryan, executive director of the New Brunswick Right to Life Association, which operates Women's Care Centre offering pregnancy counselling next door to the abortion clinic, contends the announcement is a "stunt."
"My first reaction was, 'Oh boy.' Second reaction, was, 'Hold on a second, is this for real?'"
Ryan believes it's intended to put pressure on the provincial government to loosen hospital restrictions, or find a new private funder.
"When we bought this place, my hope and prayer was that we would outlast them (the abortion clinic), and that's still my hope and prayer," he said.
Morgentaler sued the N.B. government
Morgentaler opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969, when attempting to induce an abortion was a crime punishable by life imprisonment and the woman faced imprisonment of two years.
Anti-abortion activists targeted the clinics, and rallies, protests and many legal battles followed. On Jan. 28, 1988, the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional.
That did not end Morgentaler's legal battles.
He launched a lawsuit against the New Brunswick government in 2002, demanding the government pay for procedures at his clinic.
The lawsuit, which the clinic says cost him more than $1 million, has been in limbo since the death of the abortion rights activist last May.
New Brunswick's Department of Health declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday.
"As this matter is still before the courts, the department has no further comment," the statement said.
Sarah Leblanc, of the Regroupement féministe du Nouveau-Brunswick, a Moncton-based group that supports abortion rights, says if there's any change in the service the Morgentaler clinic offers, the provincial government must improve access in hospitals, because abortions are legal.
"The bottom line is women have to be able to access that service of their own choice. It's the woman's decision. We have the right to decide what happens with our lives and our bodies," she said.
The Alward government has been content in the last four years with the status quo of requiring two doctors to sign off on an abortion.
Liberal Leader Brian Gallant has called himself pro-choice. In the legislature on Thursday, Gallant called for an independent review of access to abortion in the province.
"I think it's safe to say that there are even greater concerns now, over access, over funding, over safety. Will the premier update us on what his government is planning to do to address this situation?”
Gallant did not, however, commit to changing the province's two-doctor requirement for a woman to get access to an abortion.
Asked whether his party backs him on abortion, Gallant said he declared himself as pro-choice when running as leader for the party and the party chose him.
'The clinic not being available would put, I would imagine, some pressure on government to rethink what was essentially an ideological position, not one that was grounded in real public policy making.' - Jula Hughes, lawyer and clinic volunteer
Jula Hughes, a lawyer who volunteers with the Fredericton clinic, said the closure of the Fredericton clinic could make abortion availability an issue for politicians in the upcoming September election.
"It was easy to get away with not taking a positive position on access to reproductive health because the clinic was here," Hughes said.
"The clinic not being available would put, I would imagine, some pressure on government to rethink what was essentially an ideological position, not one that was grounded in real public policy making."
Green Party Leader David Coon said the clinic closure underlines the need for the Alward government to move quickly on establishing "quality reproductive health services" for women in New Brunswick.
He is calling on the health minister to immediately establish a working group to assist with the transition and transformation of abortion services in the province.
The Green Party's advocate for health and the status of women, Marilyn Merritt-Gray, says services should include reproductive health screening and treatment, contraceptive information and methods, and abortion services.
"The provincial government's responsibility is to ensure women have access to caring and quality reproductive health care services, and this includes timely access to safe abortion services," said Merritt-Gray.
"This means the Alward government must repeal Regulation 84/20, which imposes unacceptable restrictions on women who need timely access to safe abortion services."