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Abortion Rights Activists In P.E.I. Are Done With Just Asking Nicely

After years of asking nicely, advocates are turning to the legal system.

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There's only one province in Canada where women are forced to leave to get an abortion and after years of fighting, advocates are done asking. For them, the time has come to sue the province of Prince Edward Island.

Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Abortion Access Now P.E.I. (AAN P.E.I.) announced this week that it filed a legal challenge over the province's abortion policies.

The group says the lack of on-island abortion services violates women's rights to equal health care services, which should be protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As is stands, the province has refused to allow abortions to be provided on the island itself. Rather, they will only pay for the procedure if women travel to a hospital in Moncton, New Brunswick or Halifax, Nova Scotia. And that doesn't include travel costs, such as the $46 toll to cross the Confederation Bridge into New Brunswick.

P.E.I. hasn't had in-province abortion services since 1982 and since then, both Liberal and Conservative governments have repeatedly upheld the status quo.

"If you look at all the work we’ve done, all the hopeful meetings we’ve had, all the promises and promises not followed through on, there is a point where you realize you have to bring it to the next level," said Colleen MacQuarrie.

Courtesy of Colleen MacQuarrie

MacQuarrie is an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island and part of AAN P.E.I. She said the scholars she'd heard from say this is a clear case of the province failing to fulfill its duties.

"We were hoping all along that the government would practice good governance in terms of looking at the evidence and understanding their constitutional obligations," she told BuzzFeed Canada.

"It does leave you wondering why the government is forcing us to go though this incredibly expensive and drawn-out process."

Governments have repeatedly said that their obligations have been fulfilled, that the rules work, and that a balance has been struck. But MacQuarrie doesn't buy it.

"It’s the height of insult, the height of ignorance, to say that a province can actually balance out human rights against other people’s opinions."

The government has at least budged a bit. Soon after his election win in 2015, Premier Wade MacLauchlan announced that women could make their own referrals to obtain out-of-province abortions, rather than waiting for a doctor to sign off.

Jonathan Hayward / THE CANADIAN PRESS

"That announcement actually did nothing to address the situation of medical abortions in P.E.I., at all," said MacQuarrie.

One of the factors that has made change so hard is the island's culture itself. With fewer than 150,000 people in the province, it's the sort of place where everyone seems to know each other. It also has a long history of anti-abortion politics and religious influence that has helped make it the last holdout in Canada to providing full abortion access.

MacQuarrie remembers a time when public school students were bused to anti-abortion seminars and feminist mothers toned down their rhetoric out of fear their children would be bullied. Though attitudes are changing, accessing medical abortions remains a challenge.

"When you combine all of those factors and then add into that that this is an island and that everyone knows you, the factors of shame and stigma and fear become to much more magnified here," said MacQuarrie.

Lauren Strapagiel is Managing Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto, Canada.

Contact Lauren Strapagiel at lauren.strapagiel@buzzfeed.com.

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