New Brunswick

Vickers sharpens abortion-access election promise

Liberal Party Leader Kevin Vickers is deviating from his predecessor by promising to fund out-of-hospital abortions.

Blaine Higgs maintains province provides enough access by funding abortions in 3 hospitals

Kevin Vickers speaks to reporters on the campaign trail Monday. (CBC)

Liberal Party Leader Kevin Vickers is deviating from his predecessor by promising to fund out-of-hospital abortions.

In an interview Monday, Vickers said not funding surgical abortions performed in clinics is limiting access and contravening the Canada Health Act, which is why he would change the provincial regulation so the province's only clinic providing abortions, Clinic 554 in Fredericton, would receive funding from Medicare for the abortions it provides.

"As premier I would ensure that [Clinic 554] operates and provides services necessary to both women and the LGBTQ2 community," he said.

In 2014 then-Liberal premier Brian Gallant amended a regulation under the Medical Services Payment Act to remove the need for two doctors to approve an abortion but said the province would only cover abortions done in hospitals.

But abortions are only performed at hospitals in two cities, Moncton and Bathurst. No hospital elsewhere in New Brunswick does the procedure.

Blaine Higgs said legal advisers have confirmed the province is not contravening the Canada Health Act by not funding out-of-hospital abortions, but the federal government thinks otherwise. (CBC)

Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs has said that providing abortion services in three hospitals — two in Moncton and one in Bathurst — equates to adequate access. 

On Monday, Vickers said he promises to change the regulation that says abortions will only be covered by Medicare if done in hospitals.

Feds weigh in

Abortion funding in New Brunswick was an election issue in the last federal election, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to "ensure" the province funds abortions at private clinics.

People who undergo surgical abortions at Clinic 554 must pay up to $700 out of pocket.

Earlier this year the federal government found New Brunswick was violating the Canada Health Act because people were being charged for a service they're entitled to have covered.

"Obviously, there is an inequity in terms of access to services," Minister of Health Patty Hajdu said in February.

The federal government found New Brunswickers spent $140,216 out-of-pocket for abortions in 2017, so it deducted that amount from the annual health transfer payments this March. 

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic the federal government reimbursed the province.

An election issue

On Friday, Higgs said his "legal advisers" have assured him the province is currently following the Canada Health Act and providing adequate access.

He said the issue "doesn't need to have a lot of discussion." If anyone believes the province is breaking the law, they can sue.

"The mechanisms if any one believes we're not following is to challenge that, and that will go through the court system and a ruling will be made," he said.

Caitlin Grogan, NDP candidate in Quispamsis, demonstrated against abortion underfunding during a Blaine Higgs campaign event on Saturday. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Over the weekend NDP Quispamsis candidate Caitlin Grogan demonstrated against abortion underfunding with a handful of other people at a Higgs campaign stop. 

She said her concern is that Higgs is violating the Canada Health Act with his refusal to fund out-of-hospital abortions, but also wants to shed light on the other services Clinic 554 provides to LGBTQ people. She said they may lose those services if the clinic closes.

When it comes to Vickers's promise, it's "an incredible first step," she said.

"I hope that that is not just, you know, an election promise that that will be a real commitment," she said. 

"I'll cross my fingers that he means it."

She said the next step would be making sure that those services are available at more hospitals across the province and using the Clinic 554 model to expand access to more areas.

'Scared of the consequences'

Vickers said that from his experience as a former police officer, he knows that women who live in abusive relationships "are fearful to go to a public facility to obtain abortions," he said.

"They're scared of being found out and, being in an abusive relationship, scared of consequences of going to a public health facility."

He said he also got to know the issues facing LGBTQ, especially transgender, people.

"I know the experiences that they can incur going to traditional facilities, where sometimes medical practitioners see their being as being deviant or requiring mental health issues versus treating them as a transgender person who is in need of medical services."

He said he expects no pushback from his own party on this stance.

About the Author

Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca

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