By Peter Ryan
(Peter Ryan was Executive Director of New Brunswick Right to Life from 1999 to 2016. He recently published his Memoir The God of Life Lives: A Memoir)
The following is an attempt to shed insight into New Brunswick abortion statistics for 2015-19, as compiled by Patricia Maloney.
Ever since the advent of legalized abortion in Canada in 1969, abortion has been anything but a settled issue in New Brunswick. In the early 2000’s, for instance, two of the main hospitals (in Moncton, Fredericton) stopped doing abortions. A third major hospital (Saint John) did few or no abortions for decades. On the other hand, two formerly Catholic hospitals (Bathurst and Francophone hospital in Moncton) began doing abortions.
These instances of institutional aversion to or acceptance of abortion reflected the drama of decisions by individual obstetrician-gynecologists at the different locations. They also reflected New Brunswick’s unusual and, in comparison to most provinces, more restrictive policy: Until 2015, Medicare only covered abortions if they were performed in a hospital by an obstetrician-gynecologist after being certified by two physicians as medically necessary.
That policy became a major issue in the 2014 provincial election. The victorious Liberal party under Brian Gallant campaigned on removing abortion barriers. In 2015 the rules requiring two doctor approval and an ob-gyn were annulled.
Interestingly, the in-a-hospital requirement remained. As a result, the private abortion clinic that has operated in Fredericton since 1994 (first by Henry Morgentaler, then since 2015 by a different owner) is the only one in Canada not publicly funded.
Statistically, the profile for many years – before 2015 - was that about 1,000 surgical abortions a year took place in the province: about 400 in hospitals, and about 600 in the private clinic. This meant an abortion rate of about 13-14 abortions per 100 live births, less than half the Canadian average.
In my judgment New Brunswick’s reduced abortion rate, more restrictive Medicare policy, and exclusion of funding for private clinics reflect a more pro-life social and political culture than elsewhere. That culture was likewise expressed for a number of years when one-third or more of the sitting Members of the Legislature, and coming from both of the main parties (Liberals and Conservatives) attended the annual March for Life in Fredericton.
The ground shifted in 2015, with newly elected premier Brian Gallant touting abortion as a “Charter right,” though it is not. Under government auspices, a new abortion “service” was soon opened at The Moncton Hospital. A provincial hotline was also set up to give women “access” at hospital sites.
Three hospitals were publicly identified as offering abortions: beside The Moncton Hospital, the Dumont Hospital in Moncton (serving Francophones), and the Chaleur in Bathurst. What was not publicly disclosed, and has just now come to light, was that, starting in 2015, the province's other five regional hospitals also began to perform a small number of abortions each year.
Predictably, hospital surgical abortions rose significantly in 2015, 2016 and 2017 according to provincial government figures: 560, 608 and 656, respectively. (1) An average increase of over 50% compared to the 400 per year previously.
The increase for 2015-17 is even greater according to Canadian Institute for Health Information stats: an average of 734 per year, an increase of over 84% from pre-2015 years.
I have no explanation for the discrepancy between NB’s health department stats and those of CIHI. One thing is clear: Public policy changes after the 2014 election had a dramatic impact on the loss of prenatal lives.
As one examines the stats for individual hospitals, one is struck by how The Moncton Hospital has become the dominant center for surgical abortions, with an average of 292 abortions a year from 2016-19.
In 2017 a new phenomenon emerged: “medical abortions,” referring to chemical or mifegymiso (containing RU-486) abortions. That year New Brunswick became the first province to offer free chemical abortions. The government reported 162 in 2017. (2)
Chemical abortion stats then surged hugely in 2018 and 2019: 520 and 704, respectively. At the same time, surgical abortions decreased to 522 and 405, respectively. (3)
What is so dismaying for pro-lifers is that the net total number of Medicare-funded abortions has, during the past two years, reached an annual average of 1,075, more than two and a half times the pre-2015 average.
To give an accurate provincial picture, we must also factor in surgical abortions at the private clinic in Fredericton. While no public stats are available, Clinic 554 says they performed about 1,000 from 2015-19, or about 200 a year. Assuming that information is correct, it would mean a total of about 1,275 NB abortions a year as of 2018 and 2019.
Consequently, comparing the 2018-19 average to the pre-2015 average of about 1,000 abortions, we find the annual provincial total has increased by about 28%. The provincial population increased by less than 4% between 2015 and 2019. This means the lives of preborn children in New Brunswick have become significantly more at risk.
The NB abortion stats compiled for 2015-19 reveal one more newsworthy fact. The provincial government data includes gestational ages of abortions at five of the 8 main hospitals. What is striking is that, from 2015-18, the hospitals in Saint John and Fredericton (Chalmers) seemed to take turns specializing in second trimester abortions, whereas the other three hosptials listed did first-trimester procedures.
In 2015 and 2018 Saint John did a total of 14 abortions at an average age of 16.8 weeks; in 2016 and 2017 Fredericton did a total of 20 at an average age of 16.3. Whereas at the other three hospitals the average age for 2015-18 was 9.3 weeks.
The significantly higher average fetal age of abortions at two previously undisclosed locations is startling in light of complaints repeatedly made in recent years by abortion rights activists that Medicare-funded abortions were not available in hospitals at 14 weeks or more gestation, whereas, they argued, Clinic 554 did them up to 16 weeks but women were forced to pay. The newly published data reveal that, in truth, the hospital system had, since 2015 and without general public knowledge, acquiesced to those complaints, performing abortions up to and past 16 weeks.
Elected in 2018, the government of Blaine Higgs has stood firm against funding the private abortion clinic in Fredericton, despite pressure from the federal government. That pressure has included the withholding of $140,000 in health transfer funds due to NB’s policy.
The abortion situation in New Brunswick continues to be unsettled. In late 2019 Clinic 554 announced that due to lack of public funding they will be forced to close down. The building was put up for sale, though its operations continue in the meantime. How a closure would affect the profile of future hospital abortions remains to be seen.
The safety of preborn babies in New Brunswick has much deteriorated since 2014, reflected in markedly higher abortion numbers. The fact that all eight main hospitals have become involved in abortion, as opposed to two previously, is alarming.
What is especially shocking is how the number of “medical” (chemical) abortions has spiked, even after a new government not known for friendliness to abortion rights took office. Pro-lifers have always tended to focus greatly on the problem of surgical abortions. In the future more attention deserves to be given to chemical abortions, while not ignoring the plight of any preborn child.
On a positive note, New Brunswick’s life-friendly social culture has not greatly eroded. A poll by Narrative Research in February, 2020 found that two-thirds of residents oppose tax-funded abortion on demand.
(1) These totals do no include cases where a hospital performed 5 or fewer abortions.
(2) The government says mifegymiso is for pregnancies up to 7 weeks.
(3) That figure refers to government data; CIHI stats are not yet available for both of those years.