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Legal déjà vu: Another battle for abortion access

This week Abortion Access Now P.E.I., with support of the national women’s rights non-profit LEAF, gave the 90-day warning required before suing the government.

A protester holds a pro-choice sign at Victoria Park, in Halifax, during a demonstration for access to abortion services on the one-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, May 29, 2014.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A protester holds a pro-choice sign at Victoria Park, in Halifax, during a demonstration for access to abortion services on the one-year anniversary of the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, May 29, 2014.

Prince Edward Island: Home to Anne of Green Gables, lobster, and not one abortion.

Not one for decades, despite the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling that struck down the country’s anti-abortion law.

And now, after years of fighting, activists are suing the province. It’s just the latest in a long line of litigation that gave women the right to abortions and then fought for the implementation of that right. It’s perhaps fitting that it has come down to a lawsuit in P.E.I.

This week Abortion Access Now P.E.I., with support of the national women’s rights non-profit LEAF, gave the 90-day warning required before suing the government. The groups allege the province is infringing on women’s charter rights and is in contravention of P.E.I.’s own health-care plan. Lawyers will argue the no-abortion policy unlawfully discriminates on the basis of sex and pregnancy, and that sending women out of province goes against P.E.I.’s commitment to the efficient and equitable administration of health care.

Currently, the province pays for an abortion if a P.E.I. woman travels to one of two approved out-of-province hospitals. But travel isn’t covered.

There is the bridge toll to get off the island, the bus fare, often an overnight stay at a hotel, all for a short procedure, says Kim Stanton, LEAF’s legal director.

The lawsuit is a last resort, Stanton said — it could take years and an estimated $100,000 to litigate. But, “You don’t start one of these things unless you are willing to see it through.”

Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, expects a battle.

“Based on things like (the province’s) own history and their long-standing policy, they’re just going to be stubborn and keep fighting, no matter how weak their arguments are, no matter how weak their case is,” Arthur said.

Stubbornly, too, pro-life advocates have fought access to abortion at every turn, pushing federal bills to send abortion-providing doctors to jail (in 1990) or enshrine the rights of fetuses (in 2007). We’re lucky not to live in the violent days, when abortion clinics were firebombed (as in 1992), and abortion doctors were shot (as in 1994, 1995 and 1997).

But in many ways — the threat of rising fees for B.C. abortion clinics; provinces refusing to fund abortions that take place in clinics — abortion rights remain under attack. According to Arthur, only one-fifth of hospitals nationally provide abortions.

So here we are, in 2016, with a lawsuit to carry on that good fight. The latest legal battle, but surely not the last.

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