How the U.S. abortion paper leak is bringing B.C.'s reproductive access into focus

Abortion access still an issue

A B.C. grassroots organization wants the province to be a beacon of hope for reproductive justice in North America, amid the leaked Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) draft opinion to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The news coming out of United States is horrifying,” says Teale Phelps Bondaroff, chair and co-founder of AccessBC.

“When we see a draft opinion, like the one that we saw in United States coming forward that fundamentally undermines a person's right to choose what happens to their body, we have feelings of outrage and frustration and horror and anger.”

When the news broke, Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, stated their support of a person’s rights to choose.

And while Phelps Bondaroff says their response was “admirable and necessary,” he says more work needs to be done.

“We need politicians to bring that same energy when it comes to tackling other barriers to reproductive care. We have politicians saying you have a right to an abortion, which you absolutely do. And that's fundamental, but we don't have them throwing that same energy behind efforts to prevent unplanned pregnancy to remove other barriers to people accessing reproductive health services.”

This is one reason why AccessBC has been advocating for free prescription contraception in B.C. since 2017: conducting research, meeting with MLAs and consulting with government.

American influence on Canada

Despite the news from the United States, abortion is and has been legal in Canada for a while.

In January 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that any law that restricted a woman’s right to life, liberty, and security of person was unconstitutional.

And this is a truth that needs to be reiterated, according to Dr. Ruth Habte, a resident physician in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at UBC, and a campaign organizer for AccessBC.

“There is no law that criminalizes or restricts abortion in Canada,” she says.

But she also understands the influence the U.S. can have on Canada.

“I think it emboldens people who are anti-abortion and can embolden people to maybe protest more or intimidate people away from doing what's best for their body. I think it also can lead to us having issues with ongoing access,” Habte tells Glacier Media.

Abortion rights affect all individuals with a uterus, not only cis women, she says.

“People who are rich, people who have power in society who many times end up being rich, wealthy white cis females, will always be able to get an abortion,” explains Habte.

“But when it comes to racialized communities, people who have other children or single parents, people who are from the working class and just barely making ends meet, and gender-diverse communities, as well as people who are in abusive relationships — those are the people who suffer the most at the hands of policies like this.”

And Habte emphasizes that while abortion is legal and has been decriminalized, it’s not as accessible as people may think.

For example, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights notes that B.C. has 23 urban providers, but only one rural provider in the province. (Options for Sexual Health has a list of 50 providers across 35 communities, including several rural and northern locations, most of whom do not want their information posted online, according to a recent CBC article.)

In a statement to Glacier Media, B.C.'s Ministry of Health said "there is more work to do, particularly on improving access to surgical abortions in rural areas, and we will continue to work on improving access across the province."

And although the provincial gestational limit for a surgical procedure is 24 weeks and six days, this doesn't mean all providers can perform up to that mark.

"If anyone is wanting to have an abortion at 16 weeks or 18 weeks, it's a multi-day process. And they have to come to Vancouver to have that done," says Dr. Habte.

On their website, the BC Women's Hospital notes that patients who are seeking an abortion after 12 weeks can expect to have two or three days of appointments, and advises them to stay in Vancouver for a few days.

"So these people are travelling from their home communities, a lot of times have children, have jobs, have spouses, have commitments. [They] have to leave that behind, put that on pause for a few days, come down to Vancouver, have their procedure done, and then, you know, fly back or drive back to wherever their home community is," says Habte.

She adds this is "a huge detriment in terms of what is available for abortion care in this province."

Part of the discrepancy is because the abortion procedure changes as the pregnancy is farther along, she says.

“So, after 14 weeks, the procedure becomes at least a two-day [event] and then after like 18 weeks, it becomes like a three-day kind of ordeal. And they take a very different skill set to be able to perform an abortion after 14 weeks, and one before,” says the doctor.

Access continues to be an issue in Canada

While abortion rights and contraception access may seem like two separate issues, Habte says that “abortion access very readily mirrors what we have for contraception access.”

Depending on a person’s insurance plan, and their desired form of contraception, it can be costly. As Habte notes, some insurance plans do not cover every form of contraception.

“An IUD can cost between $75 and $380. The pill can cost $20 a month, hormone injections $180 per year, and the implants, which are newly on the market, $350 for an implant,” says Phelps Bondaroff.

He says these costs disproportionally fall on people in marginalized situations, and those with low incomes.

In the 2020 B.C. NDP election campaign, the provincial party had pledged to make contraception free for all British Columbians, and Premier John Horgan had included free prescription contraception in his mandate letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix.

The government has yet to implement the policy and Phelps Bondaroff isn’t sure why.

“Free prescription contraception is a fantastic policy. It will make life more affordable, improve health outcomes for mothers, infants. It will increase equality and it will save the government millions of dollars,” he says.

In a statement to Glacier Media, B.C.'s Ministry of Health said they "are actively working on policy and other developmental work that will support implementing this commitment." But they did not specify a timeline.

It would save the B.C. government $95 million annually, according to a 2010 study from Options for Sexual Health.

“We’re kind of baffled as to why the government wouldn't jump on those kinds of savings, let alone the impact on equality, equity, affordability and health,” says Phelps Bondaroff.

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