Inquiry called into abortion policy in N.B.

Tamsin McMahon, National Post · Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission has launched an investigation into the province's controversial abortion policy, which critics say forces most women to pay for an abortion out of their own pocket. New Brunswick only covers the cost of an abortion if a woman gets two referrals from a doctor and has the procedure performed in a hospital. To qualify for a referral, she must be fewer than 12-weeks pregnant and the abortion must be considered "medically necessary." But abortion activists have criticized the policy because many of the province's doctors refuse to give abortion referrals. They argue the criteria for hospital abortions is restrictive and that hospital-based services have been slowly dwindling. Only two hospitals in New Brunswick are willing to perform abortions, in Moncton and Bathurst. The majority of the province's abortions are performed in private clinics, where women have to pay as much as $800, said Carolyn Egan of the Ontario Coalition of Abortion Clinics. "Women are being denied a basic right to have a medical procedure covered by the health-care system," she said. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada that does not cover abortions performed in a clinic, Ms. Egan said. "Why should a woman be treated differently than a woman in Ontario or Quebec or British Columbia?" she said. "In that sense it's a violation of human rights of women who happened to geographically be in the province of New Brunswick." Randy Dickinson, human rights commission chairman, confirmed yesterday the commission had received a complaint into New Brunswick's Medical Services Payment Act, which covers medicare payments for abortions. He wouldn't reveal who filed the complaint, or when it was made. But he said the case had already exhausted a lengthy process, including mediation. The commission recently reviewed the case and determined there was enough evidence to send it to a formal board of inquiry. The commission hasn't yet appointed the board members to review the case, which Mr. Dickinson said might be held behind closed doors because of the subject matter. "Because of the nature of that particular topic, there may be some issues about the parties wanting potentially to have privacy," he said. A start date for the inquiry has not yet been set. A separate legal battle on the policy has been in the courts for years. The province, which recently elected a new Conservative government, has been embroiled in a long-standing legal battle with high-profile abortion supporter Dr. Henry Morgentaler. Dr. Morgentaler is suing the government to pay for abortions at his Fredericton clinic. He won a Court of Appeal decision last year after the court rejected the province's argument that only women looking to have an abortion could launch a lawsuit. The province had been in a showdown with Ottawa in 2005 over its decision not to fund abortions in clinics. Ottawa started a dispute-avoidance procedure with New Brunswick, but the issue fell off the radar when the Conservatives came to power in 2006. Abortions are considered an "insured service" under the Canada Health Act and doctors that perform them can't charge user fees. But New Brunswick has long argued that it does allow universal access to free abortions by paying for procedures performed at hospitals. "I think it is important to recognize that the access is there," the province's Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Margaret-Ann Blaney, told the Fredericton Daily Gleaner in May, when she was opposition health critic. tmcmahon@nationalpost.com

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