British Columbia

Many B.C. abortion providers still keep their services a secret

It's been 20 years since the last major violent incident against an abortion provider in B.C., but some still don't feel safe listing themselves online.

Reproductive health-care providers can face stigma and that can impact access

Michelle Fortin, the executive director of Options for Sexual Health B.C. at a Women's March rally in Vancouver. Her organization helps connect people seeking an abortion to providers closer to home. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In 1994, Dr. Garson Romalis — an abortion services provider in Vancouver — was shot by a high-powered rifle while eating breakfast at his kitchen table. He survived, just to be stabbed in the back outside his office six years later. 

In both cases, Dr. Romalis was targeted for providing abortion services.

Though it has been more than 20 years since the last major violent incident targeting abortion service providers occurred in B.C., many still fear for their lives and livelihood, says Michelle Fortin, executive director of Options for Sexual Health B.C.

Her organization, a social profit organization with ties to Planned Parenthood, keeps its list of abortion providers in British Columbia hidden for security reasons — particularly in northern and Interior communities where anti-abortion attitudes are more prevalent.

 "It is very sad that we're still in a place in 2022 where someone who is providing health care to the 50% of the population who can get pregnant … needs to be worried about their security," Fortin said.

Hidden services

Stigma surrounding abortions can still lead to barriers for those seeking access to medical help, particularly in more rural communities. (Nicole Mason/Unsplash/CC0)

While opinions polls show Canadians are generally supportive of providing access to abortions, anti-abortion attitudes still remain throughout the country, sometimes in highly visible ways.

Communities like Smithers and West Kelowna, B.C., have had prominent anti-abortion billboards on display while the leader of the pro-life Christian Heritage Party received nearly 800 votes while running for a seat in northwestern B.C. in the most recent federal election.

Knowing those sentiments exist in their communities can lead to medical providers wanting to keep their stance on abortion a secret, Fortin says.

This covertness can also lead to the impression that abortion services are less accessible than they really are. In one infographic being shared online this week, only 24 abortion service providers are listed in B.C., almost all in urban centres — when in reality there are far more.

Fortin's organization has a list of 50 providers across 35 communities, including several rural and northern locations, most of whom do not want their information posted online.

In order to connect with one of these unlisted providers, patients must contact an organization like Options for Sexual Health B.C., which screens callers before passing their information on to a clinic in their community. Many of those providers then use unlisted phone numbers and separate email addresses to connect with people seeking care until they are confident in their safety.

"The reality is that providers recognize that there is still, sadly, stigma attached to providing [abortion] and because of that they worry about how they and maybe their families may be treated," Fortin says.

Honest conversations

Libby Schofield of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights says honest conversations are needed to de-stigmatize abortion services. 

Schoffeild says individuals sharing their stories can help organizations like Action Canada and Options for Sexual Health B.C. better serve those seeking to access abortion services, as well.

Education groups also say it's important for people to be aware of the full spectrum of options available for people seeking reproductive care, such as receiving prescriptions via telehealth and mail.

Ultimately, though, Fortin says she also supports patients, physicians, and providers to do what they need to feel safe.

"And so, if right now, it means that they need to be a little more stealth about it, then we will support that. We will also continue to champion and speak very loudly and proudly about access to all reproductive opportunities, including abortion."