The last legal abortion on PEI was performed more than three decades ago. Why?
On the morning of January 5, 2016, Colleen Macquarrie stepped into an elevator in the Shaw government building in downtown Charlottetown. It had been thirty years since the last legal abortion was performed on Prince Edward Island. Macquarrie held a large envelope containing papers advising PEI’S deputy attorney general that Abortion Access Now, an advocacy group co-founded by MacQuarrie, intended to sue the province for unrestricted access to surgical abortions.
It so happened that Premier Wade Maclauchlan was on the same elevator. The two recognized each other: Maclauchlan, the former president of the University of PEI, had hired Macquarrie for her current position as associate professor in its psychology department. “It’s PEI,” MacQuarrie says, by way of explanation. MacQuarrie laughs as she recalls the encounter. “I tapped the envelope and said, ‘It’s going to be an interesting three months.’”
During the five years she’s spent investigating the impact of PEI’S lack of abortion services, Macquarrie has collected stories from front-line health-care workers and advocates, and from women who have tried to obtain abortions.
One such woman is Moe (her last name is being withheld to protect her privacy). The Charlottetown native was nineteen, and in what she describes as a poisonous and controlling relationship with her boyfriend, when she found out she was pregnant in 1999. “I had no idea what to do,” Moe says. “My life was pretty much over, is how I felt.” Her partner threatened that he would never speak to her again if she terminated the pregnancy.
But a sympathetic relative helped Moe get a referral to the Morgentaler Clinic in Halifax, drove her to the city, covered the cost of travel, and paid for the abortion fees. By then, the pregnancy was far enough along that she required a procedure more expensive than originally expected. But despite having endured what she describes as a rough experience, Moe is grateful. “I had the support of a very caring relative who had the ability to hand over the credit card and say, ‘Here, get it done.’”
If that hadn’t happened, Moe says, she isn’t sure what she would have done. “I was imagining myself walking out in front of a truck, falling down the stairs,” she recalls. “It was, Make this pregnancy stop at all costs.”
Moe’s story is similar to many of those unearthed by Macquarrie. In 2013, the preliminary findings of her qualitative study revealed that some PEI women reported using alcohol or drugs “to get their bodies to expel the contents or to get their bodies loose enough to fall harder downstairs so that they would be traumatized enough [to miscarry].”
It wasn’t always this way. From 1969 to 1986, PEI was largely in step with the rest of Canada on abortion policy. Women could, at least theoretically, appeal to an on-island Therapeutic Abortion Committee (TAC) that had the authority to approve those abortions deemed medically necessary. The law’s ambiguous criteria left it open to interpretation, and abortions were at times granted on socio-economic or psychological grounds.
But in the mid-1970s, the province began to limit abortion access. Research by historian Katrina Ackerman shows that the shift was due in large part to efforts by the PEI Right to Life Association.