Abortion Rights in Canada

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Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, the list goes on – with each passing day, it seems like reproductive rights in the United States are becoming more and more endangered. But what about in Canada? Canadians can’t be blamed for feeling overwhelmed and confused about where Canada stands in terms of abortion – it’s a taboo topic and honest, unbiased information is scarce.

The following cheat sheet is intended to give you the facts about abortion in Canada – what our major parties believe, where the provinces sit, and whether abortion is truly accessible in this country. Let’s get started.

Is abortion legal in Canada?

Yes. Abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988.

Among women aged 15-44, 8.03 out of every 1,000 will receive an abortion each year (2014 numbers).

Ok, but is it insured?

Yes. Under the Canada Health Act, abortion services are funded in all provinces and territories.

But this is where it gets a bit… complicated. In Canada, healthcare is run by the provinces. That means abortion access and the regulations that surround the procedure vary province-by-province.

What does that mean in practice?

Provinces get to determine how easy (or hard) it is to access abortion services.

The province can determine which hospitals get funding for abortions – only 16% of hospitals in Canada are able to provide abortions. The province can also determine a cap for when they will stop providing abortions. In Alberta, for example, funding for abortions stops at the 20th week.

Here’s a good example – PEI didn’t have any abortion clinics until 2017. The government simply did not provide the funds for a proper medical clinic. Prior to that, PEI women and transgender people required a letter from their doctor authorizing an abortion, and the patient had to travel to Moncton or Halifax for the procedure. While the province paid for the medical costs, the patient had to cover travel expenses themselves.

Similarly, in New Brunswick, abortion is only covered if performed in certain hospitals – some clinics will provide abortion services, but the cost will not be covered by the province. Rural women and transgender patients must travel into cities with hospitals in order to receive an abortion. In Yukon, there is only one abortion provider, located at the Whitehorse General Hospital.

Does that include the abortion pill?

Yes, Mifegymiso, known as the ‘abortion pill’, is legal and insured in most provinces. Mifegymiso can be prescribed by a family doctor before the ninth week of pregnancy, and taken at home. Abortion advocates say that the pill makes abortion more accessible, especially for rural women. But in reality, women outside of major cities often have trouble accessing Mifegymiso.

For example, in Manitoba, unless a woman is on specialized low-income insurance provided by the province, she can only get Mifegymiso from one of three abortion clinics. Two are located in Winnipeg, one is located in Brandon. Even if you are located in one of those cities, you’ll still have to wait – one of the clinics in Winnipeg only has enough funding to open for one day per week. Most women must wait two weeks for Mifegymiso, and three for a surgical abortion.

In Saskatchewan, only women on Saskatchewan’s low-income insurance are covered for Mifegymiso – otherwise, women must pay ~ $300 for the pill, or have a surgical abortion.

Across Canada, there have been reports of women visiting multiple family doctors or clinics before they are able to receive a prescription for Mifegymiso. Some family doctors feel unfamiliar with the drug, some have not taken their province’s mandatory training course (only necessary in some provinces), and some have personal beliefs that make them hesitant to prescribe.

TLDR; the abortion pill could increase abortion accessibility, but this too varies by province – in some cases, it’s just as hard to access as a surgical abortion.

What about late-term abortions?

In Canada, late-term abortions (past 20 weeks) are extremely rare, accounting for 0.59% of abortions. Reasons for having an abortion after 20 weeks are most often medical.

However – these abortions are very hard to access. According to Dr. Dustin Costescu, a family planning specialist at McMaster University, late-term abortions are basically only provided in Vancouver, Toronto, and London, ON.

Every year, hundreds of Canadians travel to the U.S. for late-term abortions when medically necessary. The rationale for going out-of-country for abortion is usually related to long wait times in Canada or a lack of local providers. Often, the cost is covered by the province, though Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland will not cover out-of-country abortions, even if medically necessary.

Let’s talk politics – are any of the major parties going to change the legality of abortion in Canada?

Nope. All major parties agree that abortion should remain legal.

So, why are people talking about this as if it’s a relevant issue for the election?

Ok, so here’s the thing: polls are showing Andrew Scheer, leader of the federal Conservatives, will likely be the next PM. Yes, Scheer has affirmed that abortion will remain legal, buttttt some aspects of his past and his party have pro-choice activists concerned.

For one, upon his election to the leadership of the Conservative party, anti-abortion group Right Now sent out a celebratory press release citing Scheer’s praise of former PM Harper for not funding abortion services in health clinics in the developing world (see more in next section). During his 2017 leadership run, Scheer also sent out a “Statement on Life Issues”, stating “I have always voted in favour of pro-life legislation” – since deleted from the Conservative’s website.

He has also engaged with pro-life groups in the past, and while he did not attend an anti-abortion march in Ottawa, 11 of his Conservative MPs did – a fact that the Liberal party has not been shy to point out.

When Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé rose in the House of Commons on a statement reiterating the support for the right to abortion, most Bloc, Green, Independent, Liberal, and NDP MPs rose to applaud. Only one Conservative MP, Sylvie Boucher, applauded.

It was probably just for show, but the silence of Conservatives has some pro-choice activists concerned. TBD how reproductive rights will play a role in their communication.

What is Canada doing about abortion rights abroad?

Canada uses its international development budget to fund a full range of health services in developing countries – including abortion, where it is legal.

Within Canada’s current international development mandate, known as our “Feminist International Assistance Policy”, all women’s reproductive services are funded, including abortion. In fact, Canada poured additional funds into reproductive rights agencies, including the UNFPA, after the Trump administration eliminated support for NGOs that provide abortion services under the ‘global gag rule’.

However, funding runs out in 2020 – so feminist activist groups rallied the Trudeau government to renew funding. On June 4th, 2019, PM Trudeau announced an increase in funding to $1.4 billion annually until 2023, to support women’s reproductive health around the world.

– Contributed by Claire Robbins

Claire is the Founder and Managing Editor of B*tchcoin, an e-newsletter for Canadian women that covers jargon-free, straightforward financial news.

Jacqueline Leung