#AccessNow: Reproductive Rights in PEI

Mention abortion in public, and you have high chances of hearing the distinct sound of both pro-life and pro-choice supporters dusting off their megaphones and protest signs. Lately,the abortion argument has resulted in the social mobilization of certain groups from both camps in Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island.

Currently, there are no public clinics offering abortion services in PEI, as the provincial government prefers to refer the affected women to clinics in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Although the provincial government pays for the procedure itself, this funding does not cover transportation (for example, the toll of the Confederation Bridge, priced at around 46$) and possible accommodation costs, which the patient is personally responsible for. These conditions limits abortion access primarily for women of lower income, and those who cannot absent themselves from home for prolonged periods.

So how is it that PEI can adopt such a policy when the rest of Canada has generally easier access to abortion services? Federalism! While the Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion in 1988, the federal government gave the provincial governments a “carte blanche” on how each individual province wanted to enact abortion-related legislation. Therefore, even though the Supreme Court ruling meant that PEI could not ban abortion absolutely, it did give it enough flexibility to place serious obstacles to the concept of “choice”.

Presently, pro-choice activists are putting more and more pressure on the government to provide access to in-province abortion services, even threatening legal action. However, my aim here is not to try and advocate a particular stance, or to try and mediate between both camps. Rather, it is important to acknowledge two larger issues that this debate encompasses, issues that are often forgotten due to the highly emotional and polarized nature of the debate: public policy implementation issues and female representation in regards to female issues.

The first is to point out that even if a government formally adopts a policy, this does not mean that the policy will translate as easily in actions. For example the federal government’s decision to legalize abortion, yet PEI choosing to hinder access to these services. This is in part due to the flexibility of the federal government’s decision (the “carte blanche” previously mentioned), as well as the logistics of Canadian federalism. However, there are many more instances of the issues surrounding implementing policies “on the ground”, which I will discuss in subsequent posts.

The second and most consequential macro-issue of this debate is the fact that despite Justin Trudeau filling half his cabinet with women “because it’s 2016”, not all other areas of government have followed suit. In this case, the “top dogs” at the governmental level, such as PEI premier Wade MacLauchlan, PEI Minister of Health Robert L. Henderson, among others, are predominantly male. Overall, generally low representation of women in politics means that when issues linked specifically to being female arise, the voices of those directly affected are not always heard. Thus, women become alienated from formal political debates and are forced to instead mobilize at a grassroots level.

In the case of PEI, the Abortion Access Now group has filed an official notice to sue the provincial government. Procedure dictates that lawsuits aimed at the provincial government must be preceded by an official notice 90 days prior. Therefore, all Abortion Access Now can do is wait, and picket.

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