Rachel Gilmore, CTVNews.ca Writer, March 26, 2020
OTTAWA -- As hospitals across Canada begin cancelling and postponing surgeries to contend with the spread of COVID-19, provinces and territories have deemed abortions an essential service.
As the news broke that hospitals were suspending non-urgent and elective surgeries and procedures both in Canada and abroad, stories emerged of abortion access being impeded. In both Texas and Ohio, lawmakers listed abortions among nonessential surgeries and medical procedures that would be delayed to free up resources for the fight against COVID-19.
Health care is under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, meaning that the extent to which surgeries and procedures are being cancelled vary across Canada. However, while all provinces and territories have placed new limits on the kinds of surgeries and procedures being provided, they've confirmed to CTVNews.ca that regular abortion access will continue.
Rolanda Ryan, owner of the Athena Health Centre, an abortion clinic in St. John's, N.L., welcomed the news.
"The people leading us here in the province absolutely see it as an essential service, because it's time sensitive and it's medical necessary," Ryan said.
"The worst case scenario, if we closed our doors, is somebody trying to do it themselves…in places in the world where abortion is illegal and unacceptable, women die."
She explained that not having access to abortion does not mean it doesn't happen.
"People who want an abortion will put their lives on the line to get one, and you want to make sure that if it's being done, it's being done safely," Ryan said.
CTVNews.ca reached out to every province and territory to confirm whether abortion services would be impacted. Here's what they said.
The province has cancelled elective surgeries, but will continue to provide access to abortions.
"Urgent and emergency procedures are continuing at BC Women's Hospital + Health Centre. Non-urgent procedures are being postponed, as appropriate," said Vincent Chou, a spokesperson for the Provincial Health Services Authority.
"We continue to deliver [babies], perform C-sections and terminations, along with any other emergency and urgent procedures."
While Alberta Health Services has cancelled all non-urgent surgeries and procedures across its facilities, abortion access remains unimpeded.
"With regards to surgical abortions performed in AHS hospitals, these are not considered elective surgeries. They are urgent/emergent," said Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services.
Saskatchewan has cancelled all elective surgeries and procedures, but the province does not consider abortion to be an elective procedure.
"Termination of pregnancy is not considered an elective procedure and will continue to be offered," said Doug Dahl, a communications officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
However, he encouraged those seeking a termination to explore the possibility of having a medical abortion, where clinically appropriate. He said this is an effort to promote social distancing, as a medical abortion terminates a pregnancy with pills instead of a surgical procedure.
The province has opted to delay some elective surgeries in order to free up resources to fight COVID-19.
"We are not suspending abortions. Abortions are not considered elective. They are time-sensitive and proceeding as planned," said Paul Turenne, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Ontario, in consultation with the Ontario Hospital Association, has asked its hospitals to ramp down elective surgeries in order to free up the capacity to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Each hospital will make its own decisions about specific procedures, taking into consideration the advice and recommendations of a patient’s physician and their individual needs," said Hayley Chazan, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott.
When asked about abortions specifically, Chazan said the government is "not involved in the clinical decision-making of any procedure."
So as long as clinics are willing to stay open to provide abortion access, Ontario has no plans to stop them.
"Access to abortion is maintained for any woman who requests it. There are no plans to discontinue these services," said Marie-Claude Lacasse, the press secretary for Quebec's Health Minister Danielle McCann.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority has suspended and cancelled many of its services as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but it will continue to provide abortion access.
"The Women's Choice Clinic remains open as an essential service to provide surgical and medical abortions," said Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the Halifax Infirmary.
Health care providers in New Brunswick have cancelled all non-urgent services, including elective surgeries and outpatient services.
"Emergency and urgent cases, such as traumas and cancer care, will continue. Abortion services will continue as well," said Geri Geldart, who is vice-president of clinical at New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network.
Canada's smallest province has suspended elective and scheduled surgeries, with the exception of cancer-related surgeries, elective cesarean sections and any surgery that would cause harm to a patient if not performed within 21 days.
"Abortions are considered an essential service and have not been affected. However, the supply of providers (some travelled from outside P.E.I. to help) has decreased when the demand on this essential service continue to be the same. We are reassured, at this stage, that this is not resulting in any cancellations or delays," said Everton McLean, a senior communications officer with Health P.E.I.
Newfoundland and Labrador
While some of the health authorities in Newfoundland and Labrador have cancelled elective surgeries and are only completing urgent and emergency services, abortion services continue to be offered at the Athena Health Centre in St. John's.
"Abortion in Canada, I think across the country, will remain an accessible service. We're here if you need the care," said Ryan, who owns the Centre.
Yukon has three hospitals, but only one undertakes surgeries -- the Whitehorse General Hospital. That hospital has suspended all scheduled, non-urgent procedures.
"Therapeutic abortions are still being provided," said Patricia Living, a spokesperson for Yukon Health and Social Services.
The Northwest Territories have suspended non-urgent and elective surgeries of all types, as well as endoscopic procedures.
"Abortion services, both medical and surgical, are being maintained. We consider this an essential service," said a spokesperson for the territorial government.
Nunavut has decided to cancel all routine surgeries in its effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Therapeutic abortions continue as they are considered an essential service," said Chris Puglia, a spokesperson for the Nunavut Department of Health.