CANADA

National divisions about abortion

MARY JANIGAN February 15 1988
CANADA

National divisions about abortion

MARY JANIGAN February 15 1988

National divisions about abortion

CANADA

The two policies underlined the growing political divisions in Canada’s wrenching debate over abortion. In British Columbia, Health Minister Peter Dueck declared last week that his government would not pay for abortions unless they were approved by a hospital committee. Despite charges that he was violating last month’s Supreme Court of Canada decision striking down the federal abortion law, Dueck maintained: “We do not believe that taxpayers’ dollars should be used to fund abortions on demand.” In Ontario,

Health Minister Elinor Caplan announced that the province’s medical plan would pay the same rate to abortion clinics that it has paid for hospital procedures. Despite emotional denunciations from anti-abortion groups, Caplan said that Ontario was obliged to follow the law. Abortions, she added, “are an insured service and always have been.”

Those two responses reflected the cross-Canada confusion in the wake of the Jan. 28 Supreme Court ruling that the abortion law was unconstitutional because it violated a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person.” The judges ruled 5 to 2 that the law fostered dangerous delays—and created unequal access to abortion services in different parts of the country. That dramatic decision upheld the acquittal of Dr. Henry Morgentaler on charges of conspiracy to procure illegal abortions. And it left the provinces scrambling to fill the legal breach, using their constitutional power over health issues to regulate abortion. But the resulting regulations only increased the inequalities in access to abortion across the nation, with some provinces maintaining restrictions on services and others making them more easily available. As Lynn Lathrop, spokesman for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, observed, “It is cold comfort for women in the Northwest Territories or in rural Alberta to have the right to an abortion but not

be able to get one.”

While the provinces tinkered with their health regulations, the federal government examined its legal—and political—options. Until the Supreme

Court ruling, the Criminal Code had restricted abortions to accredited hospitals, and there only when the majority of the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee declared that the pregnancy endangered a woman’s “life or health.” But three of the five judges who struck down the law indicated that Ottawa retains the right to regulate abortion during the latter months of pregnancy.

That left the federal government in a critical political dilemma, torn between anti-abortion groups and the prochoice movement. In an attempt to find an acceptable compromise, Justice

Minister Ray Hnatyshyn last week asked the

provinces for their advice. Caplan responded that the federal government should pass a new

law that would protect fetuses after an unspecified point during a

pregnancy.

But there was no middle ground between the two impassioned lobbies.

Anti-abortion activists called for tough new legislation to restrict abortions—and to protect the rights of the fetus. They pledged to turn abortion into a major issue in the next federal election. “We are going for broke,” said Laura McArthur, president of the Right to Life Association of Toronto. “We are going to lobby everything that moves—Liberals, New Democrats or Conservatives.”

Prochoice advocates insisted that abortion was a provincial health issue—and that women should have equal access to the procedure. Declared Lathrop: “To enshrine state intervention in women’s reproductive systems opens the door to horrifying repercussions.” Added Robin Rowe, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League: “This is not a Criminal Code matter and should not involve Criminal Code sanctions. It is a health matter between a woman and her doctor.”

While those battles raged at the national level, inequalities in gaining access to abortions multiplied across the country. In Quebec, the situation was

unchanged. Legislators there have refused to apply the Criminal Code statute on abortion since 1976: a woman can obtain an abortion after consultation with her physician.

Nova Scotia announced that, while it would dismantle abortion committees, its health plan would not pay for abortions performed outside hospitals. In British Columbia, Dueck declared that the government was devising another bureaucratic mechanism to restrict abortions to replace the hospital abortion committee. Prochoice groups, in turn, were considering a proposal to open the province’s first abortion clinic within the next two months. They also threatened to challenge Dueck’s declaration in the courts.

There are clear grounds for their challenge, according to one constitutional expert. University of Toronto law professor Bernard Dickens told Maclean's that provinces clearly have the right to insist that they pay only for services that are required for medical reasons. “But those reasons could be verified after the procedure is done,” said Dickens. “One could argue that the ministry is obstructing access to abortion in ways that prejudice health and psychological well-being.”

Other provinces maintained different restrictions. In Newfoundland, the five hospitals with abortion committees disbanded them. But hospital officials refused to confirm that surgeons could now schedule abortions in their operating rooms. In Prince Edward Island, where anti-abortionists disbanded the province’s last therapeutic abortion committee in 1986, Health Minister Keith Milligan announced that the province would pay for abortions with the approval of a committee of three doctors. But hospital boards still refused to open their operating rooms for the procedure. A pregnant woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said last week that she and her doctor were considering a legal challenge of the hospitals’ stand.

In contrast, both Ontario and Manitoba made abortion services more accessible. In Toronto, Caplan said that the province’s health insurance plan would pay $100.30 for each abortion. And in Winnipeg, James Morison, registrar at the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons, told Maclean's that the college would likely grant a licence to Morgentaler’s clinic there. Those cross-Canada contrasts were certain to inflame both prochoice and anti-abortion activists —and ensure that Ottawa would face increasing pressure to find a solution to a highly volatile dispute.

— MARY JANIGAN with correspondents’ reports