Northwest B.C.’s doctor shortage is challenging reproductive rights of women in the region, who are left without access to safe abortions, says an advocacy group.
This gap disproportionately affects low income women, Indigenous women, and women who are victims of violence, said workers from Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR).
In a letter to provincial health minister Adrian Dix and Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross, the Vancouver-based organization said while abortion is legal in Canada, it remains inaccessible for women in rural areas.
“Women in Terrace, Kitimat, Prince Rupert, Smithers and the surrounding communities now need to drive seven hours to Prince George in order to access an abortion past nine weeks of pregnancy and up to 12 weeks. If a woman in northern B.C. needs an abortion after 12 weeks, she must travel all the way to Vancouver,” said Sophia Hladik from VRR.
The only obstetrician, who did perform abortions in the northwest, was based out of Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace until her retirement earlier this year.
There have been traditionally two obstetrician/gynecologists (OB/GYN) in Terrace and the one remaining, who also visits the Kitimat General Hospital, does not perform abortions.
In a statement to Black Press Media, Northern Health confirmed that surgical abortions are currently not an option in the northwest, and individuals requiring this care are referred to Prince George or Vancouver.
However, terminations – i.e. use of a medication such as Mifegymiso which is a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol – are offered in Terrace through the Women’s Wellness Centre at Mills Memorial where women are seen by local physicians, said Northern Health spokesperson Eryn Collins.
An email from the provincial health ministry said Mifegymiso became available free of charge in January 2018, which the ministry says has improved access and choice.
Further advocating the use of the drug, the health ministry said it provides significant advantages over a surgical option – it can prescribed virtually, dispensed by pharmacies, taken at home and is more cost effective.
“By avoiding unnecessary surgery, universal coverage of Mifegymiso has resulted in safer, more accessible abortion services. Removing the cost barrier helps ensure that individuals can access this safe, legal and available option if they choose,” said a ministry spokesperson, in an email statement.
The ministry added, “It is important, however, that patients are still able to access surgical abortion, as medical abortion is not always preferable or medically appropriate.”
Hladik from VRR agreed, saying that while medication is an option to terminate a pregnancy up to nine weeks, it is not always effective and can lead to complications if the embryo is not completely expelled. In such cases it will require surgical aspiration.
Moreover, the medicine can be administered only up to nine weeks, and most women don’t even know they are pregnant until six weeks have passed, said Hladik.
Travelling long distances for an abortion is even more of an acute problem for women who are victims of abuse or domestic violence, especially if they also rely on their attackers or abusers for financial assistance, Hladik told Black Press Media.
Hladik said her organization has been providing money to cover the travel expenses for women from Kitimat who had to travel to Prince George or Vancouver for abortions.
The travel expense itself can range from $300 to $400 for gas money and more so for air travel down south where prices have been high and volatile since the pandemic began.
VRR’s letter to Dix also reminded the provincial government of its 2020 promise for “faster, closer and more personalized care.”
“We call on you to live up to this commitment and make abortion truly accessible to all women in British Columbia by ensuring that every hospital is able to perform surgical abortions and by covering travel expenses for women seeking an abortion outside of their community in full,” wrote VRR to Dix.
Dix and Ross have yet to respond to VRR’s letter which was sent on Sept. 23. Ross refrained from commenting to Black Press Media and said he is yet to look into the issue extensively.
The health ministry did say it will respond to VRR and that it will work with Northern Health to help ensure surgical abortions are available.
Northern Health also said it is trying to hire a second OB/GYN and anticipates signing up one by next year.
An OB/GYN vacancy for Terrace area, posted by Northern Health on the medical recruitment site Health Match BC offers a salary of nearly $200,000 along with benefits and bonuses ranging from $50,000 to $100,000. That includes a 20 per cent annual bonus to stay in the area.
However when asked, Northern Health did not say if the recruitment for the position will be contingent to the OB/GYN agreeing to also perform surgical abortions.
“[Recruitment] is not contingent on provision of any specific service, as we look to ensure the full spectrum OB/GYN care is available to people in the northwest,” said Collins from Northern Health.