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Federal health minister says N.B. abortion access can be ‘difficult,’ but is quiet on what Ottawa will do next

Canada’s health minister says he is still concerned about a lack of equitable access to abortion services throughout New Brunswick, but he isn’t committing to any new steps to force the provincial government to expand the service.

Jean-Yves Duclos told CBC News he’s awaiting a study Ottawa commissioned in 2021 on barriers to access in the province.

“We know that there are cases and places where that right is more difficult to exercise and that’s why we made that commitment in the campaign,” he said in an interview.

“That’s why we are looking at all possible ways to make sure that women in particular have access to these reproductive rights.” 

federal health minister says n b abortion access can be difficult but is quiet on what ottawa will do
The New Brunswick refuses to fund abortions at Fredericton’s Clinic 554, a private clinic. (Jon Collicott/CBC)

The province offers abortions up to 13 weeks of pregnancy in three hospitals, two in Moncton and one in Bathurst, funded by Medicare.

It refuses to fund the procedure at Fredericton’s Clinic 554, a private clinic. The province says offering it at three hospitals in two cities is enough to meet demand.

Clinic manager Valerya Edelman said Ottawa has been “supportive” by commissioning the study and funding abortion-rights groups, but she’s not sure if there’s anything else Duclos can do.

“Health care delivery is a provincial matter … it’s tricky for the federal government to get too involved in the delivery of health care.

While the building housing Clinic 554 has been sold to a new owner, the clinic is continuing to rent space and provide abortions one day each week for a $700 fee, with financial help available for some patients.

The service is vital, especially in winter when travel to Moncton or Bathurst can be a problem due to weather, Edelman said.

A ‘red herring’

The Progressive Conservative government of Blaine Higgs passed legislation in December allowing for some surgeries to be performed in private clinics outside hospitals and billed to Medicare.

A private clinic in Bathurst is now doing publicly funded cataract surgeries, helping to cut down on surgical wait times in hospitals.

An older man with a furrowed brow standing in front of a New Brunswick flag and a Canada flag.
Premier Blaine Higgs now allows some surgeries to be performed in private clinics outside hospitals and billed to Medicare, though not abortions. (CBC)

In 2020, Higgs said funding abortions in a private clinic would be “a slippery slope. … Does that mean that we should continue to offer more and more services in private clinics and less and less services in public institutions?”

Duclos wouldn’t comment on whether the new legislation contradicts the province’s refusal to fund abortions at Clinic 554.

Instead he simply noted that New Brunswick is the only province refusing to fund abortions outside hospitals.

“That raises the obvious question of accessibility to those services,” he said.

“That’s a question to put to the provincial government. It’s also something we’re very mindful of in working with the province and with community organizations to ensure that in this context women have access to that essential right.”

Edelman said the legislation to allow private surgeries shows that Higgs’s concerns about private clinics were “a red herring,” and it’s his personal views driving provincial policy.

“I’m not surprised they are expanding surgeries outside hospitals but not looking at us, at Clinic 554. I’m not surprised at all. Their interest has been always to limit abortion access, period,” she said. 

Last year Duclos announced $3.5 million for two abortion-rights organizations, including Action Canada, which helps cover travel and accommodation costs for people seeking abortions. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about health care funding during a stop at a medical training facility at a hospital, Tuesday, February 7, 2023 in Ottawa.
In 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the study of abortion access in New Brunswick, but results have been delayed. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the 2019 federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to “ensure” the province funded abortions at private clinics such as Fredericton’s Clinic 554.

Trudeau claimed in 2021 that his government had clawed back “millions” of dollars in federal health transfer payments to New Brunswick over limits on access, but the actual amount that year was $140,216.

In the lead-up to another election campaign that year, his government announced the study of abortion access in the province. 

The research project would examine gaps and barriers to the service, such as costs, transportation and discrimination and was expected to take 18 months.

federal health minister says n b abortion access can be difficult but is quiet on what ottawa will do next 3
Jula Hughes, a former UNB law professor, is one of the researchers on the abortion study and says it’s not clear how quickly it will be published. (University of New Brunswick)

Former University of New Brunswick law professor Jula Hughes, one of the researchers on the project, said Monday that the report had been delayed, and she now expects to have it finished around June.

Hughes said it’s not clear how quickly it will be published.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the province over abortion access, arguing New Brunswick is violating the Constitution and the Canada Health Act.

The province tried in 2021 to have the case thrown out, but a judge ruled the case could go ahead.

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