The 30-year struggle for abortion access in P.E.I. shows how hard this fight can be

I have been on the front line of P.E.I.'s long fight for abortion access. I saw firsthand the harm done when access to abortion is limited or restricted. As Roe v. Wade is being threatened in the United States, I feel the need to tell this story and alert others that restrictive and prohibitive laws are not easily changed.

Let us not take for granted our right to access abortion services

A pro-choice poster featuring an illustration of a woman's face who looks like Anne of Green Gables. The sign says #HeyWade #AccessNow #SupportIslandWomen
In 2016, pro-choice posters using Anne of Green Gables-like graphics popped up around Charlottetown and on social media. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Rebecca Viau, who helped lead the fight for abortion access on Prince Edward Island. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I have been on the front line of P.E.I.'s fight for abortion access. I saw firsthand the harm done when access to abortion is limited or restricted.

In 2014, I had stepped forward in the movement and became a beacon of sorts, a public face for people to connect to. Once someone connected with me seeking to access abortion services, I would mobilize the community-organized support network that could help them find the treatment they needed in a timely manner. Because abortion services weren't available on P.E.I. until 2017, anyone seeking an abortion had to travel off-Island for treatment.

Through this experience, I bore witness to many complex and often painful situations that people became trapped in due to restricted and limited access to abortion. I was compelled to share these stories with the public. Unjustly politicized, the discussion around abortion was often too quickly dehumanized and I wanted to help shift the conversation.

Through the website The Sovereign Uterus, I collected and published the stories of people who sought to access an abortion on P.E.I. The website made an impact. Over 100,000 people visited the site in the first month it was published — and people were talking about it. Conversations were shifting as people came to witness the harm being caused by the provincial government's refusal to provide access to abortion on the Island. 

Why did it take 30 years?

Despite the shift in public opinion, with the majority of Islanders in support of providing abortion services on Island, the lawmakers made excuses or skirted the issue at every opportunity. P.E.I.'s 30-year prohibition on abortion services would not be lifted.

According to the province, Islanders were happy with the status quo and no changes to abortion access were needed. In the end it was a legal battle between the community-led organization Abortion Access Now P.E.I. (AAN PEI)  and the Government of P.E.I.  AAN PEI sued the government for infringing on Islanders' constitutional right to equal access to health-care services.

In the spring of 2016, three months after the notice was filed and before the legal case went to court, the P.E.I. government ended its restrictive abortion policy. The province acknowledged that the courts would have likely found that their abortion policy violated the charter, and announced they would open a women's health clinic and offer a full complement of reproductive health services including medical and surgical abortion.

And yes, all of that did happen.

However, what I find to be of particular note is that even with public support — even with proof of harm done — it still took 30 years for the provincial law to change. Neither pressure from the federal government nor public opinion could persuade P.E.I. to provide equitable access to abortion. It took 30 years of tireless effort, waves upon waves of effort, from community activists to not only strategize a legal battle but to help reduce the harmful impacts of the prohibition by supporting the individuals who required abortion services through various unofficial support networks. 

Decriminalization doesn't equal access

Considering Roe v. Wade being threatened in the United States, I feel it is important for me to tell this story, and alert others that restrictive and prohibitive laws are not easily changed. And even if abortion has been decriminalized, it doesn't automatically mean that access to the services are equally available to all those who require it.

The fight for access to abortion on P.E.I. was long and hard-fought. (CBC)

The conversation in Canada should be about increasing access to abortion and reproductive services rather than questioning if the service should be provided at all. Canada decriminalized abortion in 1988, and I for one am ready for the focus of the discussion to shift. It is no longer a debate whether or not we have the right to choose, and consistently bringing the conversation back to that decided point keeps the lack of access to abortion in this country hidden, silenced and cloaked as a political wedge. 

Decriminalization has not led to equitable or even reasonably-improved access to abortion in Canada, even 30 years after the law was changed.

Today, the majority of abortion providers in this country are located less than 150 kilometres from our southern border. And typically only one in six hospitals offer abortion services. That means many people who need to access this essential service are required to navigate a complex and often difficult journey to access this time-sensitive procedure. In a country as vast as Canada, you would think that such a basic, yet life-saving medical procedure that requires very little specialized equipment would be mobilized in as many communities as possible.

But the fight for access continues.

Atlantic Canada doesn't have true access

The 2016 UN Human Rights Commissioners Report clearly highlighted the alarming lack of access to abortion services in Canada. The UN called on the Canadian government to take action on the inequality.

And as access to abortion is once again thrust into the news, it has become clear that the Canadian government has been silently ignoring the fact that our health-care system is failing most people who require an abortion in this country. No matter how loudly our leaders declare on the national stage that Canadians have the right to choose, that a person's right to choose will not be denied in this country, the fact remains that the provinces control and decide how and where abortion services are provided.

We only have to look to New Brunswick to see how this is playing out today.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself has stated, even in this past week, that the federal government is eager to increase funding to New Brunswick to support the private abortion clinic, Clinic 554, in Fredericton. Yet despite the federal government's promised financial support, New Brunswick continues to deny access to abortion through the private clinic and ignores the harm being done to not only the people in N.B., but to everyone on the East Coast who would benefit from increased access if the clinic were to be open for service.

Currently there are only four hospitals in Atlantic Canada that provide abortion services. That is four clinics with hospitals to provide abortion services for potentially a million people. This means not only the cost and stress of travelling, but it also means longer wait times and in some cases time runs out. 

It's our constitutional right

If the federal government is telling the truth when they say they are committed to supporting the right to equitable access to abortion services in this country, but the provinces control the delivery of the service, what could be the work-around? Sure the federal government could put pressure on the provinces financially for not providing adequate access to abortion services, but that is likely too politically messy considering our four-year election cycle, and it has proven unsuccessful in the past.

I for one am certainly not holding my breath to see any grand moves by the federal government in this way. However, I do know that it is certainly possible for the federal government to make birth control and contraceptives free to everyone. Imagine the difference that would make. Really, take a minute and think about it. Let's start supporting women and gender-diverse Canadians with adequate sexual and reproductive health care from the beginning. Invest in harm reduction.

I urge everyone who reads this to take the time to visit The Sovereign Uterus website, to read and bear witness to the stories of the people who survived accessing an abortion on P.E.I. during the prohibition.

Take a moment to reflect on where you fit in this story. Are you feeling complacent about the issue? Is it difficult to discuss with friends, family and colleagues? Let us all take a moment to hold space for those who have suffered, and open our hearts and minds to the harm that will continue to happen if access remains as restricted as it is now. Can we shift the conversation to one that will be productive? I want to continue to pivot the focus on abortion in Canada from the right to choose, to the right to equitable access to service. It is our constitutional right. 

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Rebecca Viau

Freelance columnist

Rebecca Viau is a Canadian artist and entrepreneur from Prince Edward Island.


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