Premier Brian Gallant is removing a key regulation that has restricted access to abortion services in New Brunswick for two decades.
Gallant made the announcement at a news conference Wednesday morning in Fredericton.
The premier promised in the election campaign to review Regulation 84-20, which requires women seeking a hospital abortion to have two doctors certify it as medically necessary.The review identified barriers to abortion services, according to Gallant.
It also requires the procedure to be done only by a specialist, whereas other provinces allow family doctors to perform abortions.
The so-called two-doctor rule has been in place for two decades, supported by previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments.
“Identifying those barriers was an important step towards eliminating them,” Gallant said in a statement.
Gallant said the new regulation will no longer require two physicians to certify the procedure is medically necessary, effective on Jan. 1.
This will put reproductive health procedures in the same category as any insured medical procedure, according to the government.
"We have identified the barriers and are proceeding to eliminate them in order to respect our legal obligations under the Supreme Court of Canada ruling and the Canada Health Act regarding a woman’s right to choose,” Gallant said in the statement.
Abortions will need to be performed in hospitals
Non-specialists will be able to perform the procedure under the new rules, but all of the procedures will have to be done in hospitals.
When asked by reporters if Gallant considered Wednesday's announcement historic, the premier said his government was moving forward with the reforms because they were right, not because they might be historic.
The Liberal cabinet has approved the regulatory changes "by consensus" at a meeting last week. Gallant wouldn't say whether the reforms were unanimous in cabinet.
'It’s huge, it’s historic. I mean, we can’t celebrate too much, we are only catching up to 1988 and the rest of the country.' - Wendy Robbins
A vote in the legislature is not required for the changes to come into force because the rules were all contained in regulations.
However, Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch told reporters on Wednesday that he will raise the abortion issue in the legislature.
The legislature is set to resume in December.
This will be the first time the legislature has sat since Gallant's Liberals won the Sept. 22 election.
The premier's announcement also discussed improving access to abortion services.
Gallant said the Department of Health will work with the province's two regional health authorities to increase capacity and improve timeliness to access to abortion services.
As well, the provincial government will "improve access to accurate and non-judgmental information."
“As a province, we have a responsibility to respect women’s rights and our legal obligations by providing this procedure in a safe environment like any other insured service under Medicare,” said Gallant in a statement.
Abortion became a major political issue earlier this year when the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton announced it would close in July. The clinic said it couldn’t continue to perform abortions without provincial funding.
Shortly after winning the Sept. 22 election, Gallant said he would convene a group of experts, either those inside the government and perhaps some from outside, to identify the barriers to abortion.
'It's huge, it's historic'
Wendy Robbins, a University of New Brunswick professor, said she was teaching when news about Gallant’s announcement broke, prompting cheers in the class.
“It’s huge, it’s historic. I mean, we can’t celebrate too much, we are only catching up to 1988 and the rest of the country, right,” she said in an interview.
“For New Brunswick, it is phenomenal, it does say that we are separating church and state, I would say, in a healthy way.”
Robbins has been a longtime advocate for improving access to abortion services in New Brunswick.
When looking back 12 months, Robbins said she doubted the abortion rules would change by the end of 2014.
But Robbins said it took the political will to move the decision forward.
“It is wonderful that the two-doctor rule is gone. That was incredibly patronizing, and just delayed people to no end. It was a real hardship in a province like this when it is so difficult to find one doctor, let alone two,” she said.
'It’s not a good day as far as we’re concerned.' - Peter Ryan
Robbins was involved in a Liberal policy convention in the spring that saw two motions passed that opened up the party’s stance on reproductive rights.
She said the next step is to have abortion procedures done outside hospitals, in places such as doctors’ offices. She said roughly 6,000 abortions are performed each year in the offices of Ontario doctors.
However, the New Brunswick government's decision to open up access to abortion has not been unanimously embraced.
Peter Ryan, an anti-abortion activist, said on Wednesday that he was not surprised by Gallant's decision, but the announcement was "gravely disappointing."
"It’s not a good day as far as we’re concerned," he said.
"It’s like we’re having Black Wednesday this week as well as Black Friday because this policy amounts to open season on unborn children in New Brunswick."
Ryan said he felt the majority of New Brunswickers supported the previous rules governing abortion in the province.
He also said he felt Gallant's Liberals were elected in September in spite of the abortion promise and not because of it.