Nova Scotia will soon no longer be the only province in Canada where women must get a referral from a doctor before booking a surgical abortion, and will also make the abortion pill available for women at no cost.
The province announced Friday that women will be able to book a surgical abortion directly through the termination of pregnancy unit at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority will also be setting up a phone line so women can call and make appointments. The new measures are expected to take effect in the next few months.
"We believe that women should have control over their reproductive health and that's why we've made that decision," Kelly Regan, the minister responsible for status of women, told reporters at Province House.
Advocates have said Nova Scotia has some of the highest barriers in Canada to getting an abortion, due to its past referral policy and lengthy wait times for the time-sensitive procedure.
Abortion pill to become free
As part of Friday's announcement, the province said it will make Mifegymiso — also known as RU-486 — available for free to all Nova Scotia women looking to terminate an early pregnancy. Mifegymiso is a two-drug combination of mifepristone and misoprostol that can be used to terminate a pregnancy up to 49 days.
Beginning in November, women with a valid health card and prescription will be able to get the drug at pharmacies.
"If they already have a health benefits plan we would ask them to use that and then any remainder the province will cover," Regan said. "If they don't have a health plan, we will cover that cost."
Mifegymiso costs around $350 per treatment, and the province expects the measure to cost up to $200,000 per year.
The changes are about providing women with the health care options they deserve, said Premier Stephen McNeil, brushing off a question on whether he thought it would be a tough sell to certain segments of the public.
"It's not a question about selling, it's about doing what's right," he said. "And we believe women deserve access to this health care and we will do so."
To receive the abortion pill, women must get a prescription and have an ultrasound performed to rule out health risks and confirm how far along they are in the pregnancy.
Women seeking the pill will be given "same-day and urgent access" to ultrasound equipment in the diagnostic imaging department of the QEII, according to Kim Munroe, the Nova Scotia Health Authority's director of ambulatory care.
The province is working to ensure the same standard will be in place outside metro Halifax in "the next couple of months," said John Gillis, a Nova Scotia Health Authority spokesperson.
In August, Health Minister Randy Delorey said the practice of requiring a referral for an abortion was likely "historical practice," not law.
Not all family doctors and pharmacists in Nova Scotia have been trained to prescribe Mifegymiso. The province said that as of Sept. 16, 15 physicians and 55 pharmacists in Nova Scotia had taken the online course for prescribing the pill.
Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta also cover the cost of Mifegymiso, with Saskatchewan covering it based on women's individual drug coverage and eligibility.