Out in the Open

Changing abortion from a 'whispered word' to the new status quo on P.E.I.

After 35 years, one activist helped bring abortion access back to the province.
An abortion rally outside Province House in Charlottetown, with both pro-choice and anti-abortion signs, in November 2011 (CBC)

When Colleen MacQuarrie first started working in abortion activism in 2010, even the word abortion was still taboo on Prince Edward Island.

"Basically there was a silence around the word abortion, silence around the concepts of abortion," Colleen told Piya.

"People, actually, on the street, thought that abortion was illegal because we didn't have it in P.E.I."

Through the work of Colleen and other activists, that slowly started to change. Last year, she and other abortion rights proponents threatened to sue the provincial government over abortion access.

A few months later, in March 2016, the government announced that abortions would be performed on PEI. The first one took place last month.

"After we won the case, I never heard the word abortion more in my entire life," she laughed. "The stigma started to shift from the day we started the project."

Colleen became the very public face of the pro-choice movement on P.E.I., a province with a stark divide between those who supported abortion access and those who did not. 

"It's rare that people will talk to my face about how they think about things. It's often been very back-door, biting-at-the-heels kind of backlash."

For example, Colleen's mother, who at first disapproved of abortion but came around to her daughter's side after having conversations with her, was approached by another woman while out at a community card game. 

"This woman came up to her and she was berating her for having such a miserable daughter.

"I had been in that woman's home when I was a teenager, and she said, 'If I had known that she was going to grow up to do these kinds of terrible things and try to bring murder back to the province, I never would have let her in the door, and you should be ashamed of her, and ashamed of yourself.'

"I didn't like that my mom was being targeted."

Through it all, Colleen knew she couldn't retreat from the cause. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she had the courage to face whatever came at her.

"I mostly just said to myself that you're an adult, and you can do this, you've already survived as a child far worse things than this … you're bigger than this, and don't back down."