The P.E.I. government announced today it's moving to provide abortion services on the Island for the first time in almost 35 years.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan, along with Health and Wellness Minister Rob Henderson and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Paula Biggar, announced Thursday afternoon in Charlottetown that the province is asking Health PEI to plan for a new women's reproductive health centre that will offer a number of services, including medical and surgical abortions.
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"In coming to this position, government respects that Islanders hold a range of deep convictions about abortion," said MacLauchlan. "This is something that's been debated over years and decades."
"This range of views and these strong convictions are reflected within our cabinet and caucus, and have been fully aired in our deliberations. We have members who are pro-life and members who are pro-choice. We respect these views and respect each other, as we expect will be the case among Prince Edward Islanders."
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Health PEI has been directed to complete a business plan for the centre — which will be located in a hospital setting.
The government hopes to have a plan in place and to be able to provide abortions as early as the end of this year.
"When the new women's reproductive health centre is in place, government will cease the service funding agreement [with Halifax]," said Henderson. "Moncton service will remain in place for Island women who choose to use it."
Lawsuit launched in January
In January, abortion rights activists gave the government notice they would be filing a lawsuit to force the province to provide full and unrestricted access to publicly funded abortion services on the Island.
MacLauchlan said the province likely wouldn't have been able to successfully defend itself against that suit.
The premier said a provincial abortion rights policy — like the one P.E.I. has — is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
P.E.I. is the only province or territory that does not provide surgical abortions, although it will pay for the service, in Moncton, N.B., and Halifax.
MacLauchlan had promised when he was elected last spring to reduce barriers for Island women seeking abortions.
Last summer, the province made it easier for women to obtain abortions out of province by allowing them to call a toll-free number to make an appointment for an abortion at a Moncton hospital without a referral from a doctor or Health PEI.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he welcomed the announcement.
A woman’s right to choose is fundamental in Canada. We welcome today’s announcement by PEI Premier MacLaughlan on reproductive services.— @JustinTrudeau
'I feel ecstatic'
Jackie Torrens, a writer, actor and director who tried to access an abortion on P.E.I. when she was 16 said the province's decision is a long time coming.
"I feel ecstatic about it," she said.
"I feel so happy. The fact that on-Island access will be available by the end of the year is tremendous. It's also cheaper. It is cheaper for on-Island access to be provided than off-Island access. And it is going to be great for rural women and low-income women."
Torrens, who is from P.E.I. but is now based in Halifax, said when she found out about her pregnancy in the mid-1980s, the doctor essentially told her she had no choice but to go through with the pregnancy.
She travelled from P.E.I. to Montreal to have an abortion, which she called a very scary, involved and complicated process, and a financial hardship.
She hopes the news will go a long way towards what she calls "the stigma of shame around the realities of women and their reproductive lives."
Pro-choice advocates 'relieved'
The decision was applauded by abortion rights activists.
"I was a little bit surprised, excited and incredibly relieved," said Colleen MacQuarrie, co-chair of Abortion Access Now PEI — one of the groups behind the lawsuit.
MacQuarrie teared up as she listened to the announcement. She told reporters she was thinking about all the women on the Island she has heard from who have had trouble getting an abortion in the past.
"They were on my mind," she said. "It's very emotional when I think about all of the punishing regime that some of them had gone through."
Anti-abortion groups remain opposed
The PEI Right to Life Association maintains there's no constitutional right to abortion in Canada.
"Our association does not support the government's decision to have abortion access on the Island as it kills an innocent human being," said executive director Nicole Dupuis. "We are pleased, however, that they are offering a pre- and post-abortive counselling service for women.
"We will continue our efforts to educate the Island about the harmful effects of abortion and also to try and have other services available so women feel that they have the support needed to not have an abortion."
Campaign Life Coalition released a news release saying it strongly condemns the decision.
"This decision falls in line with the federal government's goal to expand the killing of human life from coast to coast," said National Organizer Mary Ellen Douglas in the release. "This is truly a sad day for Prince Edward Island, and a sad day in our nation's history."
Biggar acknowledged there are many strong opinions on abortion.
"We have listened with respect to many voices and personal convictions on this topic," she said. "Public policy must be reassessed and revised to ensure it stands the test of time. The decision we're announcing today means that we will offer timely access to frontline services that align with women's equality rights."
Surgical abortions have not been performed legally on the Island since 1982.