Information an issue with abortion access in Peace region

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Though abortions are provided in the Fort St. John Hospital, information about the process in town is not particularly accessible—particularly to any individuals without a family doctor. 

Access to abortion in remote and rural areas, including parts of northern Canada, is an issue across the country. In British Columbia, specialized abortion clinics providing either medical or surgical procedures only exist in the south of the province. There are five in total: three in Vancouver, one in Kelowna, and one in Victoria. Surgical abortions are not services every hospital in the province—or even every major hospital—performs. 

“B.C. has some of the most liberal abortion provisions in Canada,” said Dr. Ruth Habte, a gynecological resident physician in Vancouver. “But there is still quite the disparity in access.”

Issues of access—and even legality—have been brought into focus nation-wide after Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court’s decision that declared an abortion a constitutional right, was overturned last month. 

Though R v. Morgentaler, the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that decriminalizes abortion in the country (it does not make abortion a right, unlike Roe v. Wade) stands firm, efforts have been made by pro-life groups and politicians to regulate or prohibit abortion in Canada. reached out to healthcare providers and organizations who support pregnant people in Fort St. John about the process to obtain and the availability of abortions—both surgical and medical options—in the city. 

Northern Health confirmed that surgical abortions were performed in the Fort St. John hospital and, in a statement, expressed commitment to providing “a range of serivces and advice for pregnant women, including abortion services.”

“It is important that women understand all of the options available to them, and that they have the appropriate supports in place for their decisions,” Northern Health continued. The health authority did not comment on wait times or other limitations of service—such as limits in the gestational age of the pregnancy— in Fort St. John.

Surgical abortion has been legal in Canada since the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in R v. Morgentaler. During this case, the court struck down a federal abortion ban as an infringement on Canadian’s Charter rights. 

Medication abortions, which use a combination of two prescription medications to terminate a pregnancy up to ten weeks along, were approved by Health Canada in 2015 (though they remain a less common procedure, according to the Willow Clinic in Vancouver).

Abortion in Canada is currently treated like any other medical procedure, and is funded through the Canada Health Act. Surgical procedures are covered under MSP and costs for prescription medications vary depending on insurance. 

The North Peace Pregnancy Care Centre, a charity committed to helping individuals effected by unexpected pregnancy, does not advocate for abortion but told Energeticcity that they advise women in the area to consult their family doctor for a referral if that is the option they choose. Northern Health, in a statement, also recommends a visit to a family physician first. 

A consultation with a family doctor is the first step in seeking most kinds of medical attention. Abortion is no different, and this visit can begin the path for a patient in search of this kind of care. 

But in a region facing chronic shortages of vital medical practitioners—including but not limited to family doctors— this first step can seem like a large leap for many without a primary care physician. 

Telehealth appointments out of major centers like Vancouver have been helping fill these gaps. An increasingly in-demand option during the pandemic, abortion clinics like Willow Clinic or the Elizabeth Bagshaw Clinic in Vancouver have developed systems of virtual care that do not require patients to travel or have a primary care physician, according to Prince George physician Dr. Heather Smith. 

It also up to the physician whether or not they will refer, prescribe, or perform an abortion. Telehealth clinics specific to abortion provision can provide council and referral options for doctors based on the pregnant person’s decision without concern for the stigma that surrounds the procedure.

Northern Health advises anyone facing an unexpected pregnancy to call the Pregnancy Options Line (604-875-3163) which provides short-term telephone counselling and up-to-date information about services available in the individual’s area, according to HealthLink B.C. Northern Health says the line can also provide referrals to local physicians.

Though the procedure’s legality is less-often questioned in Canadian courts than it has been in American ones, access issues and stigma surrounding the procedure remain on the southern side of the border.

Though access itself does not seem to be a major shortfall issue in the Peace region, access to information surrounding abortion in the area and the referral process can be tricky to navigate. It took three weeks to find the information in this article.

With local files provided by Moira Wyton at the Tyee.

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