Sonia Furstenau: It’s time to double access to reproductive rights and health care in BC

Opinion: For people living in remote, rural and northern areas of British Columbia, the barriers are massive and unfair.

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I was shocked when I heard that Roe v. Wade, the backbone of abortion rights in the United States, was struck down on June 24. Like many other Canadians, the news made me reflect on abortion access here at home, and how far we still have to go. .

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Access to abortion in BC has been a long battle. We must not forget that in Vancouver there have been attacks on abortion providers. Dr. Garson Romalis was shot by a sniper in his home in 1994, and people accessing abortion services were subjected to harassment and violence. Visiting a friend in the 1990s who was a social worker at an abortion clinic, I learned how vigilant and alert I had to be at all times. We have made progress since then, but not enough.

Canada does not have a law that criminalizes or restricts abortion, and advocates have worked tirelessly to treat abortion as medical care, because it is just that. But abortion in Canada, and specifically in BC, is far from accessible.

Access to abortion services in BC depends on a person’s geographic location and socioeconomic status. The most marginalized people in our communities are the most affected by unequal access to care: indigenous peoples and people of color, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, people who are poor. We overlook this inequity at our peril, especially when reproductive rights are under attack in the US.

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In 2018, the provincial government took steps to provide universal and free coverage of Mifegymiso, the abortion pill. These pills now account for two-thirds of abortions in BC, but they cannot be used for all abortions, and surgical abortion services remain essential.

If you need a surgical abortion in BC, you must travel to one of five clinics, all of which are in the southern part of the province. For people living in remote, rural, and northern BC, that can mean hundreds of dollars, time off work, plane tickets, gas money, and hotels—all to access an essential health care service. These barriers are massive and unfair in a country that is supposed to pride itself on public health care.

Health care is a provincial responsibility. This means that provincial governments have the responsibility and power to provide health care services to their citizens.

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There are other outstanding health care services that British Columbians need that the government could easily provide. During the 2020 election, the BC NDP campaigned on a promise to provide free prescription contraception (which currently exists in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia, among other countries). We are still waiting for them to deliver on this promise, which would help alleviate some of the financial burden women bear when it comes to birth control.

Another significant step the government could take would be to provide free menstrual products throughout the province (after all, these are health care products). The BC NDP recently announced a $750,000 task force to investigate solutions to period poverty, but this money would be better spent distributing and making free menstrual products widely accessible.

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When it comes to politics here at home, we must hold our government accountable. It is not enough to point out the virtue when we know what actions should be carried out. We need financing. We need surgical abortion services available in Northern BC. We need timely and sufficient reimbursement for those who have to travel to obtain services. Providing free, affordable and equal access to contraceptives and menstrual products is one step. Improving access to family doctors and affordable childcare is also essential. We need a government that matches its words with action.

Finally, the provision of accessible abortion services and reproductive health care generally depends on our primary care system. If primary health care collapses, so does access to reproductive care. Any government that ignores this is gambling with the lives and well-being of its citizens.

Sonia Furstenau is party leader BC Green and Cowichan Valley MLA.

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