New Brunswick

Abortion advocates push new Liberal government to improve access

Pro-choice activists in New Brunswick have started counting the minutes until Brian Gallant's new Liberal government eliminates what they call, barriers to abortion.

Reproductive Justice N.B. calls for two-doctor rule to be dropped immediately

Group timing Liberals on promise to scrap two-doctor rule for abortions. 2:29
Reproductive Justice N.B. spokesperson Jessi Taylor says the rule that abortions can only be performed with the consent of two doctors is a barrier that's putting lives at risk. (CBC)
Reproductive Justice New Brunswick is urging the newly sworn-in Liberal government to waste no time removing, what it calls, obvious barriers to abortion.

The pro-choice group contends Regulation 84-20, of the New Brunswick Medical Services Payment Act, is a clear impediment that does not require further review.

The regulation stipulates that abortions are only paid for if they are performed in one of two approved hospitals, after being deemed medically necessary by two physicians.

"We don't have to wait, we know the barriers," said RJNB spokesperson Jessi Taylor. "Barriers that we know are putting people's lives at risk. And so, those don't need further study. Those can be repealed and worked on immediately."

That's why RJNB launched a Days of Inaction Timer on its website on Tuesday at 2 p.m., when Premier Brian Gallant, Health Minister Victor Boudreau and the rest of the new cabinet were sworn in, to remind them that abortion rights activists are counting every minute until the government makes good on its pledge to eliminate barriers to abortion services.

'Be a bit patient'

Gallant, who has declared himself as being pro-choice, has promised a review of what he considers unconstitutional restrictions on access to abortions in New Brunswick.

He has said he will convene a group of experts, either those inside the new Liberal government and perhaps some from outside, to identify the barriers to abortion.

Gallant repeated his pledge on Tuesday. "We just got transitioned in, but I can assure you we will be looking at that right away," he told reporters.

"We're going to be finding out what the barriers are, and we are going to be eliminating them. We've committed. And if New Brunswickers can be a bit patient and give us a chance to get our feet under us as a government, they'll see that we'll do it swiftly."

But Taylor maintains the two-doctor rule can, and should, be changed immediately by cabinet. It does not have to go to a vote in the legislature.

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, says the two-doctor rule imposed in 1988 appears to have been intended to limit access to abortions. (CBC)
The rule has been in place since 1988.

It was enacted after Dr. Henry Morgentaler claimed victory with a Supreme Court of Canada decision that struck down therapeutic abortion committees as being unconstitutional.

Therapeutic abortion committees consisted of three doctors, who could approve a woman getting an abortion in hospital if they agreed her health was at risk.

New Brunswick's then-deputy minister of health quickly organized a meeting with Department of Justice officials, medical society representatives and members of the provincial hospital association on Feb. 5, 1988 to discuss "the problems created by the Supreme Court of Canada decision on abortion," according to the minutes of the meeting, obtained by CBC News.

About 350 abortions a year were being performed at that time and they expected the "liberalization of access to abortions" would lead to an increase in demand, the minutes show.

Still, there was "remarkable agreement" that the therapeutic abortion committees should be disbanded, according to the document.

It seems the intent was to limit access in some fashion, but you don't see them saying that in so many words.- Dr. Ed Schollenberg, College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick

"Probable outcome: The New Brunswick government will eliminate therapeutic abortion committees and the decision re. abortion as a method of managing a problem will be decided by a patient and her physician.”

Less than two weeks later, however, the then-minister of health Raymond Frenette came out with a policy requiring that "a second medical opinion be obtained as to the need for the operation."

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, the registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, says he can't find any evidence that the two-doctor rule was discussed with physicians in the college or the medical society before being announced.

"There was no doubt that the fact that they wanted it to be maintained in a hospital, that it was a means to limit access. Whether this was an additional way to limit access, you'd have to believe that was true. Whether it really did or not, it's hard to say," said Schollenberg.

"It seems the intent was to limit access in some fashion, but you don't see them saying that in so many words," he said.

"I did wonder if they were just reproducing the same procedure" as the therapeutic committees that had been deemed unconstitutional, said Schollenberg.

"In some ways, it's somewhat similar because it expands it beyond the patient and the doctor."

Morgentaler had filed a lawsuit against the province in 2002 for refusing to pay for abortions at his private abortion clinic in Fredericton.

But his family dropped the suit in April, following his death.

The Fredericton clinic closed at the end of July, citing a lack of provincial funding.

It was the only private abortion clinic in the Maritimes. It performed about 600 abortions a year — about 60 per cent of all abortions performed in New Brunswick.

The two New Brunswick hospitals that perform abortions are the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre in Moncton and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.

But many New Brunswick women are now going to abortion clinics in Maine.