Pro-life Is­land

The last le­gal abor­tion on PEI was per­formed more than three decades ago. Why?

The Walrus - - MISCELLANY - By Mi­randa El­liott il­lus­tra­tions by Jes­sica Fort­ner

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.

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