Nova Scotia

New phone line welcome, but abortion access challenges remain: N.S. advocate

Access to abortion in Nova Scotia is improving with the creation of a new toll-free information line, but some challenges remain.

Majority of surgical abortions take place in Halifax, creating challenges for women in rural areas

Eighty-five to 95 per cent of surgical abortions in the province are performed in Halifax, which means many women in the rest of the province travel hours to get an abortion, says Shannon Hardy. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

Access to abortion in Nova Scotia is improving with the creation of a new toll-free information line, but a pro-choice advocate says challenges remain in providing access to the medical service.

Starting on Monday, women looking for an abortion in Nova Scotia can call a phone line to schedule testing and appointments and receive information on both surgical abortions and the abortion pill.

When a woman calls, a nurse can schedule the appointment, blood work and ultrasound test that's required before an abortion can happen.

Challenges in rural areas

The phone line will make a big difference for women in rural or remote communities, according to Shannon Hardy, the co-ordinator of Abortion Support Services Atlantic.

Her volunteer group helps women looking for abortions navigate the health-care system and find transportation and accommodations to attend appointments.

Hardy said some women have been stalled in getting time-sensitive testing done, in part because the one doctor in their community wasn't willing to run the necessary tests.

"Finding a doctor you know is pro-choice might be harder in your community," she said.

Eighty-five to 95 per cent of surgical abortions in the province are performed in Halifax's Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, according to the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

That means many women in the rest of the province must travel for hours to get an abortion, Hardy said.

Basic abortion answers difficult to find

Hardy said it can be difficult to get clear answers to basic questions, like what steps are needed to get an abortion, who is prescribing the abortion pill, and where surgical abortions can be obtained.

It's been a particular issue in the last several months with changes to how the abortion pill is prescribed and paid for in Nova Scotia, she said.

Hardy said it has been difficult to get answers about which doctors in Nova Scotia are prescribing the abortion pill. (CBC)

"We still don't know exactly what doctors are prescribing it and which aren't," she said. "Up until now, we've been calling doctors across the province and asking them, 'Are you doing this?'"

She said people have driven in from Cape Breton Island just to get the abortion pill prescription.

"[Until today], when you went to the Nova Scotia Health Authority website and you Googled 'abortion,' nothing comes up. So when you're looking for information, when you're already stressed, it's just not out there. So this line will eliminate that."

No doctor referral required

Until recently, women were required to make an appointment with their doctor, who would then order the required testing before referring the woman to the hospital for an abortion.

Nova Scotia was the only province left in the country to require a doctor's referral.

"We've heard that women didn't want to be judged," said Kim Munroe with the Nova Scotia Health Authority. "They wanted to be able to have a service that was confidential and private." (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

"We heard a lot from women that they were waiting two, three, four additional weeks and we want to be able to offer the service as quickly as possible to them," said the Nova Scotia Health Authority's Kim Munroe. "It will eliminate the need to go to that appointment and wait for all the test results to come back before she would be referred."

Munroe says an ultrasound will still be required before a woman can either be prescribed an abortion pill or receive a surgical abortion. However, they won't need to rely on their doctor to get those tests.

"If she decides that she wants to go to a [doctor], that is her choice. That option will still be available. But if she calls the toll-free line, we would be setting up those appointments for them," she said.

Maritimes lagged behind rest of country

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. have long been criticized for lagging behind the rest of the country in providing abortion services.

Robyn MacQuarrie, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Bridgewater, N.S., says the new phone line will help women get faster access to abortion. (Steve Berry/CBC)

The phone line is a way that Nova Scotia is catching up, according to Robyn MacQuarrie, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Bridgewater who performs abortions.

"It's been a race for last between the Maritime provinces," she said. "Five years ago there were significant barriers. We've really narrowed down the barriers in all three provinces."

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or marina.von.stackelberg@cbc.ca