NEWFOUNDLAND, Canada- Pro-lifers in Atlantic Canada are alarmed by the Newfoundland government's decision to provide full funding for abortions at Dr. Henry Morgentaler's St. John's clinic.
Bowing to pressure from the federal government to fully insure what has been described as an essential medical service, the Newfoundland health ministry announced early this year that it would begin paying the full cost of abortion at the Morgentaler clinic.
Morgentaler, Canada's leading abortionist, operates a string of free-standing clinics in St. John's, Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. The clinics are part of a 30-year crusade by Morgentaler to increase access to abortion for Canadian women.
The decision has shocked Newfoundland's pro-life community, especially as the provincial health ministry struggles to maintain hospital services at a time of severe fiscal restraint.
“[The province] backs up its decision by saying the decision will actually save our province money,” said Lorraine Cole, president of the Newfoundland Right to Life association. “What they fail to tell you is that the economic toll of abortion is disastrous to our economy. Abortion is costing Newfoundlanders and Canadians billions of dollars annually.”
Previously, the Newfoundland health insurance program covered only the cost of doctor's fees at Morgentaler's abortion facility. Abortion-seeking women were required to pay an additional $400-$600 (Canadian) to make up the difference.
Threatened with loss of federal funds, local government gives into providing what Canada has deemed an ‘essential medical service’
But in 1995, Canada's federal health ministry announced that provinces that refused to cover the full cost of abortion services would see an equivalent amount deducted from federal transfer payments. In an economically recessed province like Newfoundland, the threat of a transfer payment reduction could not be taken lightly.
The Newfoundland government at first resisted the federal pressure at a cost of up to $11,000 per month. In December 1997, however, Premier Brian Tobin and provincial health minister Joan Marie Alyward said enough was enough.
Newfoundland's pro-life community is particularly incensed that the announcement to fully fund the Morgentaler clinic coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Canadian Supreme Court's decision to overturn the country's former abortion law. The announcement also came close to the Jan. 22 anniversary marking the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in the United States.
Archbishop James MacDonald of the St. John's archdiocese, said it is “appalling” that the provincial government is now the largest provider of abortion services in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The people of Newfoundland are being forced to pay for these services from their taxes,” Archbishop MacDonald said. “The government provides no alternatives and thus women do not have a choice. Abortion represents poverty of thought.”
The Right to Life association's Cole said full funding of abortion at the Morgentaler clinic is a blatant misuse of public tax dollars. She said a province which is struggling to find funds to keep hospitals open and maintain even basic levels of health care, should not divert scarce funds to an elective procedure.
“Our province has had its share of down-sizing, layoffs, and bankruptcies, and our government has cut back hospitals to the point where waiting lists for elective surgery are years long,” Cole said. “[The provincial medical insurance plan] refuses to cover all costs for certain medical conditions, yet it has no problem paying for the destruction of our unborn children.”
Cole believes Newfoundland government leaders have been too influenced by hardship stories put forward by staff and supporters of the Morgentaler clinic. A Canadian medical journal quoted the manager of the Morgentaler clinic in St. John's as saying Newfoundland women were paying for abortions with student loans and income tax refund checks.
“I would like to know how this decision was made and who had so much influence on our leaders,” Cole told the Register. “From the reaction I've heard on open-line radio programs, the people are saying they don't like this decision in the least.”
Cole said an anti-funding rally attracted nearly 1,000 people to a St. John's park on Good Friday.
Margaret Hynes, leader of Campaign Life Coalition Newfoundland, was not too surprised the by government's action. She said the province had been following a more secular course, especially in light of recent action to end decades-old support of denominational schools in the province. As well, the province recently moved to protect homosexual interests by amending its human rights act to include sexual orientation as prohibited grounds for discrimination.
“In some ways, this abortion funding decision could be a blessing in disguise,” Hynes said. “The move to provide full funding of abortion has already triggered a tremendous backlash in Newfoundland. A number of people have spoken out against it.”
Hynes said the abortion funding decision has bewildered Newfoundlanders, many of whom are reeling from downturns in the fishing and shipyard industries. At a time when many are worried about simple economic survival, a government decision to fully fund an elective, unpopular medical service is especially demoralizing, she added.
Hynes has taken a leading role in circulating a petition aimed at overturning the funding decision. The petition, which by April 29 had received thousands of signatures, calls on the government to divert health care funding dollars to more urgent areas of need.
“Taxpayers in this province protest and raise objection toward the full funding of an elective procedure,” the petition reads. “Real and urgent health care issues in this province, such as cardiology, renal disease, cancer detection and treatment require priority over inappropriate election procedures.”
Hynes and Cole were scheduled to present the petition to the Newfoundland government in mid-May.
For their part, Morgentaler supporters see the Newfoundland government's action as one more victory in providing wider access to abortion in Canada.
Morgentaler opened his clinic in St. John's in October, 1990. At the time, the clinic received no government funding. Like other provinces in Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland government officials argued that it was not necessary to use tax dollars to support free-standing clinics when abortion was available at public hospitals.
It is estimated that nearly 1,000 abortions are performed annually at public hospitals in St. John's. It is difficult to obtain statistics from free-standing clinics themselves, but Morgentaler himself has stated that up to one-third of the total number of abortions in Canada are performed at clinics.
Pro-life leaders in Atlantic Canada, who have already noted a steady traffic in abortion at Morgentaler clinics in Halifax and Fredericton, will now monitor the situation in St. John's. They are concerned the funding decision could put St. John's on a par with Halifax as the abortion center of Atlantic Canada.
Pro-lifers will also have to look to the federal government for any possible abortion de-funding initiatives. As Cynthia Clarke, head of Campaign Life Coalition Nova Scotia noted, “It seems to me that de-funding will have to become a federal priority or else the provinces will continue to tell us that they have no choice. I think in many ways they are right. The federal government has ways to punish the provinces for breaking ranks.”
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.