New Brunswick

Abortion pill now available for free to women in New Brunswick

New Brunswick is now offering the abortion pill Mifegymiso for free to women with a valid medicare card, making it the first province to provide universal access.

Province becomes first to provide universal access to Mifegymiso

The abortion-inducing drug RU-486, marketed by the manufacturer Celopharma as Mifegymiso, has been legally available in Canada since July 2016, at a cost of around $300 for the two-step treatment. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

New Brunswick is now offering the abortion pill Mifegymiso for free to women with a valid medicare card, making it the first province to provide universal access.

But access to the abortion-inducing drug is still limited by the small number of physicians in the province with the training required to prescribe it.

Health Minister Victor Boudreau made an announcement about the pill's availability on Friday — and hinted more related news could follow in the province, which has lagged behind most others in offering access to abortion.

Your government has eliminated barriers to reproductive health that were in place for three decades, and is committed to doing more.- Victor Boudreau, health minister

"Your government knows that access to reproductive health services is important to New Brunswickers," Boudreau said in a statement.

"Your government has eliminated barriers to reproductive health that were in place for three decades, and is committed to doing more," he said.

Asked to elaborate, Boudreau said in an email to CBC News that women's equality is a priority for the Brian Gallant government, which he said recognizes the importance of eliminating barriers to reproductive health.

While providing the abortion pill for free and ensuring hospital-based abortions are covered by medicare are "significant" steps, "we continue to review access to services and we remain committed to finding more ways in which we can enhance life for all New Brunswick women," he said.

Mifegymiso, also known as RU-486, is a combination drug product approved for the medical termination of a pregnancy up to 49 days. It was authorized by Health Canada in July 2015 and became available on the market in January.

It costs about $300 for the two-step treatment.

"By making Mifegymiso available free of charge for all New Brunswick patients, we are ensuring that financial barriers do not stand in the way of New Brunswickers' right to choose," said Boudreau, who had announced the government's intentions in April.

Under the new program, any woman with a valid medicare card and an ultrasound to confirm the gestational age of the fetus is eligible to receive Mifegymiso.

Only 41 doctors and pharmacists trained

Health Minister Victor Boudreau followed through Friday on a pledge made in April to provide the abortion pill free of charge. (CBC)
But the drug can only be obtained with a prescription from a doctor who has completed the six-hour training required to prescribe it.

It's unclear how many New Brunswick doctors have the training.

According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada,  41 doctors and pharmacists combined had completed the training as of mid-June, while another 15 members of the two professions had registered.

The training program is no longer mandatory for pharmacists.

When Boudreau announced the program in April, he said it was also a "call-out" to interested doctors to get the necessary training, so the drug could be offered as soon as possible. 

"As Mifegymiso becomes more widely available throughout the country and New Brunswick, we commit to working with physicians, as well as pharmaceutical distributors, to ensure timely and universal coverage for all New Brunswick women," Boudreau had said. 

'Could be a game changer'

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights commended the government Friday for taking leadership on the contentious issue.

"Making medical abortion more easily available is an important way to expand both choice and access," Frédérique Chabot, the organizaton's health information officer said in a government release.

"For people in remote and rural areas, this could be a game changer," he said.

Beth Lyons, executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, said she hopes access to Mifegymiso will be expanded. (CBC)
Beth Lyons, executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, agrees the program is a major step forward.

She hopes access to the drug will be expanded, however, to include people who are living in New Brunswick but don't have valid medicare cards.

"We're thinking particularly of students who are from out of province but not out of country, or for newcomers, and seeing if there's going to be a mechanism to extend coverage to them."

Lyons said she is also pleased that some other restrictions have been lifted. For example, Mifegymiso will not have to be taken in the presence of a doctor, and pharmacists will be able to dispense the medication directly.

Clinic abortions not covered

In 2014, Premier Brian Gallant removed the requirement for women seeking a provincially-funded abortion to have the consent of two doctors.

But the province only pays for the procedure if it's performed at a hospital in one of two cities, Bathurst or Moncton. Women who have the procedure performed at a private clinic must pay $700 to $850 out of pocket.

The Gallant government gave consideration to the question of entering into a contract with private abortion clinics, documents obtained by CBC News under Right to Information laws revealed.

In April, Boudreau said that was still a possibility, although "not in the near future."

Mifegymiso is a combination of mifepristone and misoprostolis, which act together to terminate the pregnancy and expel the contents of the uterus.

The drug, sometimes pronounced MIFFY-guy-MEE-soh, or MIFFAH-guy-MEE-soh, is manufactured by Celopharma.

Health Canada said an estimated one in 20 women using the drug will require a follow-up surgical procedure because their pregnancy is not successfully terminated.

One death occurred in Canada during the clinical trial of mifepristone, according to the Health Canada website.