Nfld. & Labrador

Abortion: Steve Kent says he would consider expanded access

Of the nearly 1,000 therapeutic abortions performed in this province in 2013-14, just under 75 per cent of the women who underwent the procedure were from the region served by Eastern Health.
Health Minister Steve Kent says he would consider any request to expand access to abortion services outside of St. John's, but says there haven't been any. (CBC)

Of the nearly 1,000 therapeutic abortions performed in this province in 2013-14, only a quarter of the women who underwent the procedure were from communities outside the region served by Eastern Health.

That may be one of the reasons why there has not been a lobby to have the procedure performed at health centres in other regions of the province, Health and Community Services Minister Steve Kent says.

Responding to some abortion rights advocates who say the fact that women must travel to St. John's to end a pregnancy is a barrier to those in other regions, Kent told CBC News that he is willing to consider requests to expand access to other regions.

Problem is, he said, there haven't been any.

"If a physician in another health region wished to offer therapeutic abortion services, we would encourage them to contact the Department of Health and Community Services through their regional health authority, and we could certainly look at that request," said Kent. 

"It could be considered but there are no immediate plans to do so. Frankly, because there haven't been requests," he added.

"We have not been receiving representation from citizens or from physicians or from people within our health authorities to expand the service."

Two options available

Currently, women in this province who decide to end a pregnancy have two options, and they are both in St. John's.

One is the Health Sciences Centre, and the second is the privately run Athena Health Centre, formerly known as the Morgentaler Clinic.

Rolanda Ryan is owner of the Athena Health Clinic in St. John's. The clinic is one of two locations in the province that performs therapeutic abortions. (CBC)

The cost of therapeutic abortions that are performed for medical reasons are covered by the province's Medical Care Plan (MCP) at both places, Kent explained.

He added that women from other regions who are medically approved may also qualify to have their costs covered by the Medical Transportation Assistance Program.

A vast majority of the abortions, about 80 per cent, are performed at Athena, where small numbers of anti-abortion advocates can regularly been seen protesting outside.

Abortion is a very personal and sensitive issue, Kent added, and crosses moral, ethical and religious perspectives.

He said many women who decide to end a pregnancy are very mindful of their privacy, and may prefer travelling to another region of the province.

"It's certainly something that's come up in the past that we are sensitive to as well," said Kent.

Removing barriers

The contentious issue returned to the spotlight this week when New Brunswick announced it is removing barriers to abortion services. 

As of Jan. 1, women in that province will no longer need to have two doctors deem the procedure medically necessary. 

The owner of Athena, Roland Ryan, applauded the decision, but expressed disappointment the New Brunswick government won't pay for abortions at private clinics, like it does in this province. 

The Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton closed in July, saying it couldn’t continue to perform abortions without provincial funding.

In comparison to other provinces in Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador leads the way in access to abortion services, said Ryan, adding that women can be on a wait list for up to five weeks at a hospital in Halifax.

She said some women from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have travelled to her clinic for an abortion.

"To get here is more expensive, so I didn't expect to see anybody but we've seen a few who've come here from New Brunswick. You know, they've done research and I guess they've chosen here because it's in Atlantic Canada and they stayed in the Canadian Health system, that sort of thing," she said.