Manitoba

Protest becomes celebration as Manitoba makes abortion pill free for all

A scheduled rally calling on the Manitoba government to ensure universal access to an abortion pill became an unexpected party Monday when the province surprised the event's organizers two days in advance by taking their advice.

Group of medical students leading the campaign said they were shocked the government came around

Flowers and buttons were given out, t-shirts sold and signs carried at a protest against the Manitoba government that turned into a party when the province decided to move toward making Mifegymiso free to all. (Ian Froese/CBC)

A scheduled rally calling on the Manitoba government to ensure universal access to an abortion pill became an unexpected party Monday when the province surprised the event's organizers two days in advance by taking their advice.

A group of medical students leading the campaign for universal Mifegymiso access said they were shocked the government came around on the issue.

"We were obviously very, very excited because this is what we've been asking for," said Erika Lee, a member of  Manitoba Medical Students for Choice.

Mifegymiso, commonly known as the abortion pill, has been available free of charge and without a prescription in Winnipeg and Brandon, but critics say the practice excludes women from rural and northern communities who may have to travel long distances and pay the price themselves.

'It came out of nowhere'

The province had become one of only two provinces reluctant to support universal access, but the government revealed Saturday it would sign on.

The decision surprised the university students, who had perceived the Progressive Conservative government as leery. The group had a meeting in March with Rochelle Squires, minister responsible for the status of women, Lee said.

"At the time we didn't think that the sentiment was very positive towards [Mifegymiso], so when we got the news it kind of felt like it came out of nowhere, but it was obviously a happy shock," she said.

A few dozen people turned out for the protest-turned-party. 

They held signs, wrote messages of support on paper cutouts of a uterus, and passed out flowers. 

People carried signs showing their support for Mifegymiso for all at a rally Monday on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The event followed a backyard gathering the five medical students had on Saturday to discuss the news just hours after it occurred. 

It was a chance to reflect on their efforts, which included a letter-writing campaign, collecting petition signatures and meeting with politicians, said Brooke Cochrane, another member of the group.

While the rally was underway, Squires declined to characterize the government's decision to make Mifegymiso universally available as an example of the government changing its mind.

Since the drug became available in 2017, Squires said she's vowed to monitor access to it. She cited a recent update from Health Canada that ruled women no longer need an ultrasound before they're prescribed Mifegymiso as one matter her office considered. 

"This was a new product coming onto the market in Manitoba and we wanted to ensure that the roll-out was successful and that we would be making decisions and modifications as we go forward," Squires said.

The government has not set a timeline for universal access, but Squires said officials have been tasked with devising a plan. Manitoba will look at other provinces that have made the drug available.

NDP status of women critic Nahanni Fontaine said making Mifegymiso free is the "bare minimum" of what a government promoting reproductive health should do. 

Supporters of Mifegymiso wrote messages on a display of paper cutouts expressing their support for universal access to medical abortions. (Ian Froese/CBC )

She wants the Tories to ensure the drug is available at pharmacies and doctors' offices sooner rather than later, and that everyone is aware the medical termination of a pregnancy can be done close to home.

"Today is a testament to those that fought and lobbied the government," Fontaine said. "Rest assured, this is because of that work, and the government came along this journey kicking and screaming.

"Myself alone, I asked about the abortion pill 57 times in question period over the span of three years. It shouldn't be that bloody hard to get reproductive justice in Manitoba in 2019."

Rally against abortion

The announcement on Mifegymiso came the same day as a rally of 1,100 people against abortion took place in Steinbach. Organizers said that Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen was in attendance, which concerned Fontaine, who insists abortion rights are at risk. 

Goertzen was not made available for an interview on Monday.

When asked about her colleague's attendance at the rally, Squires said the government is committed to a woman's right to choose. 

"Our government believes in reproductive access for women in the province of Manitoba and that's the decision that our government made, and we're moving forward with enhanced reproductive health services for women in the province in Manitoba," she said.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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