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Abortion access difficult for those in rural N.S.

A study by Canadians for Choice compares abortion services across Canada. How does Nova Scotia stack up?

By Lyndsie Bourgon <lyndsiebourgon@hotmail.com>

Posted: Nov. 13, 2007

Nurses at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre provide services to women looking for abortions. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

Nurses at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre provide services to women looking for abortions. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

A study released this summer by Canadians for Choice says it’s harder for women in rural N.S. to access an abortion.

The study, Reality Check: a close look at accessing abortion services in Canadian hospitals, was a survey of all public hospitals across Canada about their abortion services.

In Nova Scotia abortions are considered a semi-urgent procedure—the wait time for semi-urgent surgeries lies anywhere between two weeks and three months.

The average wait time for an abortion at the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Halifax is between one and two weeks.

But leave the city and there are only three hospitals in the rest of the province that will perform the procedure. Only four out of 30 hospitals in the province offer the procedure.

Wait times for those in rural areas run upwards of two weeks, a wait time Patricia LaRue of Canadians for Choice says is unacceptable.

Graeme Wilson, a communications adviser with the QEH says the wait time is only that long because women are required to have blood work and an ultrasound done before the procedure.

Elizabeth McCormack, director of the Dalhousie Women’s Centre, says she hears anecdotes from women in the centre about abortion in the province.

“I’ve heard everything from it being so good and supportive, to feeling like you’re a criminal,” says McCormack.

When Morgentaler closed

Abortion services are harder to access in rural N.S. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

Abortion services are harder to access in rural N.S. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

Four years ago the Morgentaler abortion clinic closed its doors in Halifax. The QEH then took on all abortions in the municipality.

“When the Morgentaler clinic closed here in Halifax they were only doing procedures one day a week,” says Wilson. “We’re seeing slightly more cases and it goes up a bit each year, but I don’t think it’s significant.”

The Morgentaler clinic offered shorter wait times to women seeking an abortion—Morgentaler's website says abortions are available upon request in the clinics.

Sharlene Nelsen, a clinic co-ordinator at Halifax’s Sexual Health Centre, says she’s seen no changes since the Morgentaler clinic closed. “It’s very well run,” she says of the services at QEH.

Nelsen does say that for girls seeking an abortion outside the city it’s harder. “We see people all the way from Yarmouth. They have to come up a day before and spend the night,” she says. “If you’re looking at someone young, that’s a big deal.” Nelsen says she believes these girls can’t get services in their hometown because there are no doctors who can do it.

Getting an abortion at the QEH doesn’t require an outside doctor’s referral, but the other hospitals in Nova Scotia do. LaRue says this is a problem.

“If your family doctor won’t give you a referral it’s really difficult, and you find your way lost,” she says. “There’s a taboo in leaving town and having to explain why you’re going somewhere else.”

“It’s under lockdown…”

LaRue says the main problem for women seeking an abortion in Halifax and Nova Scotia is a lack of information provided by the QEH and other hospitals.

“Our researcher had to call the [QEH] five different times, she had to leave voice messages, and she explained her situation to six different people,” says LaRue. “Someone who is looking for an abortion might be that insistent and they might conclude there are no abortions available after calling that many times.”

When calling the three other hospitals across Nova Scotia the researcher found that many hospital workers had no idea about their abortion policies.

In one case a nurse told her to take the “morning after pill” after the researcher said she was 10 weeks pregnant. The morning after pill can only be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex.

“It’s sad when a worker in a hospital who’s recognized as a health authority gives information that’s so far from the truth,” says LaRue. She says it’s impossible to know whether the health official was just ignorant or if she wanted the researcher to not get an abortion.

McCormack says the QEH turns abortions into a big secret.

“It’s like you’re in the witness protection program when you walk in,” says McCormack. “You’re in a separate part of the hospital, it’s under lockdown.”

But the reason McCormack is upset is the same reason LaRue says the QEH is doing a better job than others.

“It’s a clinic within the hospital so women don’t have to sit amongst big signs saying ‘Congratulations about your baby’ and couples looking at ultrasounds,” says LaRue. “There’s a separate waiting room and the staff is supportive of your decision.”

The rest of the Maritimes

Brochures at the Dalhousie Women's Centre provide information on abortion in the province. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

Brochures at the Dalhousie Women's Centre provide information on abortion in the province. Photo: Lyndsie Bourgon

Morgentaler still has two clinics open in New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

No doctors on Prince Edward Island will perform abortions. Women have to travel to the Morgentaler clinic in New Brunswick or to Nova Scotia.

“Very few manage to do so with the support of the government,” says LaRue. “Of course, there are those that go without the support and pay…out of pocket.” LaRue says the procedure costs $750 in New Brunswick.

Sharlene says women from P.E.I. are never denied, but that the clinic has to send documents to their government to act as a referral.

The rules are tighter in New Brunswick, where women have to get two testimonials from doctors that say her abortion is medically necessary. The abortion must then be practiced by a certified gynaecologist in a hospital.

“It’s a conservative, anti-choice movement,” explains LaRue. “Very few doctors want to provide because of picketing and harassment.”

McCormack says the Women’s Centre hears a lot from P.E.I. and New Brunswick. “[Nova Scotia] is the best case scenario in the Maritimes,” she says. “Imagine what it’s like to live in Charlottetown.”