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Women's groups pause protest to focus on abortion access

Yukon women's organizations want to change the focus when it comes to abortions in the territory.

Yukon women’s organizations want to change the focus when it comes to abortions in the territory.

For the last several years the groups have organized a counter-protest to an annual pro-life march in Whitehorse that happened on Thursday. This year they decided to stay off the street.

“We decided not to because we feel like we don’t need to protest this anymore,” said Hillary Aitken, program coordinator for the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre.

“Instead of even entertaining a conversation about the legitimacy of abortion we instead need to change the conversation to how we can improve access to abortion.”

Earlier this year Jennifer Cano, a master’s student at the University of Ottawa, completed a study on Yukoners who get abortions.

She concludes there’s high quality abortion care in the Yukon but says the women she spoke with struggle with the fragmented multi-step process and worry about privacy concerns in a small community.

In Yukon, surgical abortions on fetuses that are less than 13 weeks old are done at Whitehorse General Hospital, otherwise women have to be sent Outside.

The most recent data from the The Canadian Institute for Health Information says 102 abortions were performed at the Whitehorse General Hospital in 2014. That number doesn’t include any abortions performed out of the territory.

In the Yukon there are usually six different appointments between seeing a doctor for the first time and getting the procedure, Cano concludes.

That includes getting referred to one of the two doctors in the territory who do the procedure, getting an ultrasound and attending various meetings with doctors before the abortion. The average wait-time is 27 days.

Some appointments can be booked on the same day but organizing that many trips to the hospital can be difficult, particularly for women who live in the communities, Aitken said.

“I think the biggest piece is that transportation-accommodation cost of coming into Whitehorse, perhaps repeated times.”

The women’s groups want the territorial government to create a centralized clinic that includes abortion care.

Aitken suggests a dedicated space in Whitehorse General Hospital to help with abortions and other healthcare needs would cut down on the number of visits women have to make and improve privacy.

As it stands, abortions only happen at the hospital at dedicated times once every two weeks.

“You’re in the hospital and there’s a sense that people know what’s happening on a certain day,” Aitken said.

“So if it was a more comprehensive care clinic you could say ‘Oh, I’m just here for a pap smear,’ or ‘Oh, I’m here to find out some education about something.’ You wouldn’t necessarily have to tell people that you’re there to get an abortion.”

Since it opened in 2014, the Yukon Sexual Health Clinic has been a place women can go to get information and referrals for abortions as well as other sexual health needs like low-cost contraceptives and pap tests.

Nurse practitioner Michelle Wolsky said the clinic has “gone kind of gangbusters.”

Last month they were able to secure funding to hire a second nurse practitioner to help handle more patients.

Wolsky said she hears from women who struggle to organize time for all the appointments needed to get an abortion.

Under the current system being seen by different medical professionals at the appointments can also be difficult, she said.

“So they feel like they have to keep telling their story over and over again.”

Wolsky said the Yukon’s 27-day wait period to get the procedure puts the territory in a good position compared to other jurisdictions. In Ottawa, for example, the wait is six weeks.

“Considering other places in Canada I think we provide a pretty amazing service with the resources that we have.”

Both Wolsky and Aitken say the introduction of a pill that can cause an abortion is happening much more slowly than they would have hoped.

Health Canada approved mifepristone last year after more than three years of review. The decision puts Canada in line with about 60 other countries, including the U.S. and Australia, where the pill is legal.

The pill is not available yet because the department is still working on the rules for who will be able to prescribe it. The hope is that it should be ready by the fall, Wolsky said.

The concern is that the $275 pill could be too expensive for some women. Along with calling for a centralized clinic, the Yukon women’s groups want the territorial government to cover the cost of the pill.

But that’s not the plan, according to health officials.

The department of Health and Social Services says the government will pay the cost of the drug for girls under 19 but not for adults.

The government covers pills for children, seniors and people with chronic conditions, said spokesperson Pat Living in an email. This pill would not qualify under those programs, she said.

Questions about whether the territory would support a dedicated clinic at the hospital were not answered in time for today’s deadline.

Contact Ashley Joannou at