In the Blog
Anti-choice politician set to become Newfoundland premier
Voices for Choice counter-rally, April 18, 2014. Photo: Barbie Wadman
Editor’s note: Thanks to Barbie Wadman and Janelle Skeard for offering photos for use in this article.
The topic of abortion has been making headlines in Newfoundland and Labrador with the nomination of Frank Coleman as the leader of the provincial Conservative party, making him the premier-in-waiting. The province’s first woman premier, Kathy Dunderdale, resigned in January, with Tom Marshall acting as the interim leader while the party looked for candidates to run in the party convention in July. By law, a provincial election must take place within a year after a new party head has vacated. Coleman became the de facto leader for the Conservatives when all the other candidates bowed out.
Coleman is known as a businessman, based in Corner Brook, and he is most associated with Coleman’s grocery, a family-owned company operating in Atlantic Canada. He had not held public office before entering the race to become the next premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Abortion became an unseen issue rising from an otherwise uncontroversial nomination when his history as an anti-choice protestor became common knowledge. He admitted to having participated in the annual Pro-Life rally held on Good Friday in Corner Brook for the last 20 years. He soon took to reassuring the public that while he might not support abortion rights, he had no intention of challenging the status quo regarding abortion when he took office. He said in a statement: “it was not my intention to dictate or persuade any change in the current legal, lawful public funding models or policies,” and “just because I aspire to a political life doesn’t mean I have to be devoid of my own beliefs.” Everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs, and he might be able to keep his personal view away from his political decisions, as he has promised to. However, Coleman’s actions as a private citizen do become important when he aspires to hold high public office.
While it is one thing to have personal views on abortion, it is quite another to be actively participate in protests with the aim of ending access to abortion. There is a difference between one’s privately held views and being politically active. Let’s be clear: when you are in the running for public office, personal views such as this are no longer private. They can have direct ramifications on policies. The purpose behind the annual anti-choice rally is to stir up public opposition and to have an impact on abortion access. Coleman’s private views at a rally are very public. As Coleman has never held public office before, there are questions about what policies he would support. As a result, his stance on abortion has become a much-discussed topic in the province.
In Canada, abortion became legal with the court ruling in 1988 with Morgentaler v The Queen. The Supreme Court of Canada determined that forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy was a violation of their rights. However, the legal right to terminate has been challenged and pregnant people still face barriers. Dr. Christabelle Sethna, a professor at the University of Ottawa, says that “abortion doesn’t have to be illegal in order to be inaccessible … There are myriad obstacles women come up against.” People in PEI do not have access to a provider and must make arrangements to leave the province. As well, the Morgentaler clinic in New Brunswick has been under pressure for years and is closing due to anti-choice activism and a hostile provincial government. People seeking abortions in Canada have even more limited access if they live in rural areas.
While Morgentaler v The Queen ruled that people in Canada had the right to terminate a pregnancy, a lot of discretion rests with the provinces. Each province varies on accessibility and the amount of time allotted to make the decision. In Newfoundland and Labrador, people can terminate a pregnancy up until the 15th week and have the cost covered by the province’s Medical Care Plan (MCP). However, they must also travel to St. John’s for the procedure. Only the Athena Health Centre clinic provides abortions upon request. In the whole province, only three out of fourteen hospitals provide the service. If someone chooses to go to a hospital, they will need to get a referral by a doctor and must stay overnight, making the clinic the preferred option for many.
Distance is one of the main obstacles for people seeking abortions to overcome, which is a particular hardship for those living in rural areas. The majority of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador live on the Avalon Peninsula, which makes up the southeast landmass of island where the capital is located. This region has a populace that tends to be younger. Outside of the Avalon area tend to be older adults, with younger people moving into the capital to further their education and to seek employment. This is represented by the demographics of those who visit the clinic. While a lot of people live outside of the area, many of those making appointments at the clinic are from the Avalon area.
The policy regarding payment can also vary from province to province. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the procedure is covered by MCP, with the clinic directly billing the province. This is a relief for many, because they do not need to find the funds for the up to $1,000 procedure. However, there are extra costs to worry over, such as transportation into the city and lodgings. If they need to travel nine hours into the city and nine back, they may find themselves staying several days for a procedure that takes less than an hour to perform. The Athena Health Clinic also has a policy of having patients dropped off and picked up; patients are not allowed to drive to and from their appointments, so they must make arrangements for transportation. The extra costs are not covered by MCP; however, they can claim a percentage of it when filing income tax under medical expenses. As well, many people getting abortions already have children, so they will have to arrange for care while they are away, and for any parents or other relatives they might be responsible for. Furthermore, they might have to take time off for work, losing out on income.
People from Labrador seeking abortion care must travel to St. John’s, but some might opt to go to another province that has a clinic that was physically closer to their home. However, due to the terms of reciprocal billings between provinces, they would pay for it themselves. According to the regional director for Ontario of the First Nations Inuit Health Branch at the federal health department in a 2010 article, Indigenous people getting abortions can have all their travel costs covered by a federal program, but they still must take time to travel to St. John’s. Students from out of the province who have recently moved to Newfoundland and Labrador must pay for their own abortions out of pocket, as abortions are not included as a part of reciprocal billing between the provinces. The medical procedure itself is simple, and every hospital is capable of performing a surgical dilation and evacuation (D&E) upon request. However, they choose not to, sometimes due to pressure from anti-choice activism. There is also the pressing issue that doctors who currently perform abortions are retiring and younger professionals are not getting training, so the number of hospitals in Canada that are willing to terminate pregnancies is shrinking.
It must be noted that it is unlikely that the Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador will be the ruling party come the next provincial election that will be held sometime in 2014 or 2015, so Coleman can be seen as more of a sacrificial lamb than a permanent fixture in the Newfoundland and Labrador Conservative party. He is acting as a placeholder to be thrown under a bus until the Conservatives can get their act together and fight off their plummeting popularity. Even as premier, Coleman’s ability to influence the abortion issue would be limited. A lone figure, even so high up on the food chain, would not be able to overturn the law. However, the state of abortion access in the province would certainly not improve. It is already clear that there is a gap between the spirit and the letter of Canadian law, which makes access to abortion legal, but fails to guarantee that everyone has access. The right to determine the number of children a person has is linked to their health, equality, economic stability and the ability to support themselves financially. Even with no legislation limiting the right to choose, accessing that right in Newfoundland and Labrador is severely limited.