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Reproductive Justice in Nova Scotia

Conference organizers say the province has a long way to go

by Kaley Kennedy

Nova Scotia is one of the most difficult provinces in which to find information about abortion services.  Painting by Rebecca Roher
Nova Scotia is one of the most difficult provinces in which to find information about abortion services. Painting by Rebecca Roher

“We are women whose ultimate goal is the liberation of women in society,” echoes the chorus of Jane: Abortion and the Underground, a play that retells the story of an underground abortion service in Chicago. “One important way we are working towards that goal is by helping any woman who wants an abortion to get one as safely and as cheaply as possible,” the chorus continues, reading lines from the service’s first flier.

The flier is from 1968.

Move forward to 2010, and an audience of about 200 is sitting in the MacNally Theatre at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, reflecting on what has and what has not changed. 

The performance is a fundraiser for the upcoming Trust Women: A conference on reproductive justice. The need for such a conference is, for some, a surprising reminder of the work that still needs to be done.

“Because we’ve won the legal battle [on abortions] people think that the struggle is over,” says Jane Gavin-Hebert, the organiser of the Trust Women conference. “But it's not."

Indeed, January 28th – the day of the conference – will mark twenty-one years since the complete decriminalization of abortion in Canada.

There’s no denying that she’s right.

“There are definite gaps in therapeutic abortion services,” says Angus Campbell, the Executive Director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre. “There are a very limited number of sites that will perform [Therapeutic Abortions] in Nova Scotia. The waiting time can be up to four weeks.”

Women in Nova Scotia are required to go through a three-step process to obtain an abortion. First, they must go to a clinic or family doctor and receive a referral; then, the clinic or doctor will arrange for blood work and an ultrasound; and finally, the appointment will be scheduled. Average waiting time, says Campbell, is two to three weeks. 

Abortion procedures in Nova Scotia are covered by provincial medical insurance, but despite the fact that the majority of women have to travel to Halifax for the procedure, there is no money available for travel or childcare costs. Also, women who have out of province health cards face fees anywhere from $230 to $700 for the procedure.

“In Ontario all free standing clinics are covered under health care.  This permits a woman to make her own appointment where she will get ultrasound, blood work and procedure; usually in one day but sometimes two days,” says Campbell. “The fact that women in Nova Scotia have to attend multiple medical appointments prior to the procedure is [a] barrier to accessing services.”

The fight to make abortions accessible for women in Nova Scotia, even after abortions became legal, has been ongoing for decades. 

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Nancy Bowes and other women ran the Abortion Information Referral Service (AIRS). AIRS was a telephone answering machine service based in the closet of one of the member’s houses. Calls would be returned within 24 hours, and volunteers took weekly shifts checking the messages.

“We kept hearing that women were sometimes being poorly served by physicians and health care professionals when they were looking for information on abortion,” explains Bowes. "Women often just needed encouragement and to be told that they had the right to the information they needed and a right to the service.”

AIRS maintained a list of doctors across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland who would provide referrals, and also helped answer questions on pregnancy, sexual health, and the abortion procedure itself.

“At the time, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world,” continues Bowes. “It just needed to be done.

According to a 2007 study by Canadians For Choice, there is still much that needs to be done when it comes to getting women the information they need.  The study found that Nova Scotia is one of the most difficult provinces in which to find information about abortion services.

There is no master list available of where a woman can receive an abortion in the province, say Valerie Bellafonte, the communication director of the Nova Scotia Department of Health.  As a result, to find that information, someone would have to call each hospital individually. While about 50 per cent of abortions in Canada are performed at clinics, there are no abortion clinics in Nova Scotia.

The majority of therapeutic abortions in Nova Scotia are performed at the Termination of Pregnancy Unit (TPU) at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax.

One researcher for the 2007 study made five separate phone calls to the Victoria General and needed to leave a voicemail in order to speak with someone in the right department. The report explains that voicemail messages may create barriers for some women.

"Some women do not have a phone or do not have a place where they may privately talk about their unwanted pregnancy. Other women have concerns about a lack of confidentiality," says the report.

According to Statistics Canada approximately 2000 abortions are performed each year in Nova Scotia. 

For Hebert, who is also a mother and Master’s student in gender and women’s studies at Saint Mary’s University, the struggle has to be about more than just about access to abortion. It also has to be about educating the public.

Last winter, the Saint Mary's chaplaincy office sponsored a presentation by the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform entitled "Echoes of the Holocaust." This presentation is an extension of the centre's Genocide Awareness Project.

"The Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) is a visual display composed of 4’×8’ (or 6’×13’) billboards which graphically compare the victims of abortion to victims of other atrocities, such as Jews in the Holocaust,” reads the website of the Canadian Centre for Bioethical Reform.

GAP debuted on campuses in 1999 at the University of British Columbia.

“GAP shows students what abortion actually does to unborn children,” continues the website.

Joyce Arthur, Coordinator of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada and Trust Women presenter, disagrees.

She says that the presentations are not only unfair, but that at almost every campus that GAP has visited, students or the university, and often both, have put up a fight.

“GAP is deliberately provocative,” she says.

Many campuses have restricted or forbidden GAP from presenting on campus.

When it became apparent that SMU would be hosting one of these presentations, members of the feminist community, and other communities – such as the Atlantic Jewish Council – expressed  their concerns regarding the risk of such a presentation on the health and safety of students, particularly women and Jewish students.

Ultimately, according to Hebert, the university determined the risk to be low, and the presentation went forward.

In response, Hebert and another student initiated a complaint process and provided some possible solutions – one of which was holding some kind of feminist community education session.

The result is Trust Women: A conference on reproductive justice, to be held at Saint Mary’s on January 28. 

“On campus, in this context of an anti-abortion climate, we needed to put forward a feminist analysis,” says Hebert. “We wanted to do something that would be empowering.”

The conference will include a full day of workshops for community organizers, students, and faculty, followed by an evening of keynote speakers that will be free and open to the public.

In addition to Joyce Arthur, the evening event will include presentations by Loretta Ross, a veteran feminist activist and national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, and Jessica Yee, founder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. There will also be a screening of the film, The Choice Monologues, and a discussion with filmmaker Jessica Shaw.

It was important for the organizers that the conference focus on the broader topic of reproductive justice.

“We wanted to focus on abortion rights, but we know we need to go beyond that,” says Hebert. “We need to fight for a rape-free culture, for birth control, for child support and child care, for sex worker rights. All of these things are connected.”

Kaley Kennedy is a student activist in Halifax. She has been working in the struggle for reproductive freedom since she was a teenager.


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Topics: HealthGender
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Brewery Tour

Just wanted to thank all those who came out to the Propeller Brewing Company on Wednesday evening after the performance. It was wonderful to meet you all, I hope you had a good time. I enjoyed being your host.

thanks again,

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