FREDERICTON - The New Brunswick government is scrapping a section of a contentious regulation that restricted access to abortion for decades and set the province apart for its unique policies on the procedure.
Premier Brian Gallant made the surprise announcement Wednesday in Fredericton, saying the planned amendments mean women will no longer have to get the approval of two doctors before having an abortion.
The procedure will also no longer have to be done by a specialist, meaning access could become more timely as more doctors will be able to do it.
"As a province, we have a responsibility to respect women's rights by providing this procedure in a safe environment like any other insured service under medicare," he said.
"Regardless of our personal views, we need to respect the reproductive rights of women that have been confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada."
The changes will come into effect Jan. 1.
Gallant said he decided to make the amendments after determining that a section of Regulation 84-20 of the Medical Services Payment Act hindered access to the procedure.
The regulation, introduced in the 1980s, stipulated that women could only receive abortions at two hospitals in the province after getting referrals from two doctors who deemed the procedure medically necessary.
Critics said that led to long wait times for a procedure that has to be done within a certain time frame. They said that situation became worse after the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton, the only private facility in the province offering abortions, closed in July citing a lack of funds. Some women left New Brunswick to seek abortions in the United States or other provinces.
The closure intensified debate around access to abortion, with clinic supporters hoping possible regulatory changes might allow it to reopen if the province agreed to cover the procedure.
But Gallant said abortions covered under medicare will have to be done in hospitals.
Provincial NDP Leader Dominic Cardy, who pressed the Liberals throughout the campaign last September to repeal the section of the regulation, praised Gallant for moving forward with the changes.
But he said he hopes to see the Morgentaler Clinic included as one of the sites that could provide reproductive care.
"We do have a clinic in Fredericton that is a fully equipped women's health centre," he said. "It seems like a waste of resources in a cash-strapped province to just abandon that."
Gallant said the regulation also resulted in a lack of accurate and non-judgmental information provided on a telecare line that did not refer callers to abortion services and instead, according to critics, promoted pro-life resources.
The decision to repeal the section comes after a committee, including officials and deputy ministers from the departments of Justice, Health and the Women's Equality branch, was asked to identify barriers to abortion, said a spokesman for the premier.
Pro-choice advocates staged rallies to lobby political parties to ditch the section, saying New Brunswick was out of step with other provinces and jeopardizing women's health.
Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based group that represents abortion providers, had called on the government to develop the capacity to provide timely abortions by expanding services at hospitals or funding a private clinic.
She commended Gallant for acting quickly in easing the restrictions.
"The premier has taken a very important step in ensuring that women have access to abortion care and he's brought the province in line with the rest of Canada," she said from Washington, D.C.
"Women are not going to be subjected to arcane, unconstitutional policies that have restricted their ability to obtain the health care they need."
Peter Ryan of New Brunswick Right to Life issued a statement condemning the move, arguing it will lead to more abortions in the province — a position Gallant disputed earlier in the day.
"This news means open season on children in the womb," Ryan said. "It will dramatically increase our abortion rate. We foresee as many as 2,000 New Brunswick children a year losing their lives."
— By Alison Auld in Halifax.
Follow on Twitter @alison_auld.
By The Canadian Press