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Clinic 554 to close, bringing clinic-based abortions to end in Fredericton area

Clinic 554 medical director Dr. Adrian Edgar says he's been forced to close the clinic in Fredericton, leaving women with no place in the capital area to get a surgical abortion. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)
Clinic 554 medical director Dr. Adrian Edgar says he's been forced to close the clinic in Fredericton, leaving women with no place in the capital area to get a surgical abortion. (Aidan Cox/CBC - image credit)

A Fredericton clinic that provides surgical abortions will be closing its doors after Wednesday, with its medical director blaming an unwillingness by the provincial government to allow the procedure to be covered by Medicare.

Dr. Adrian Edgar, the clinic's medical director, announced in 2019 he was being forced to close Clinic 554 over financial pressures incurred from providing pro-bono abortion procedures to women who can't afford to pay for them out of pocket.

On Wednesday, Edgar said the clinic, which has been operating one day a week, will now close completely because of the continuing financial strain from providing the procedure free of charge, and a rent increase at Brunswick Street building that houses the clinic.

"Because Clinic 554 never turned a patient away, regardless of their financial, citizenship or Medicare status, and now, without reliable access to an affordable and suitable space to provide this level of care, we can no longer continue to do so," Edgar said during a news conference outside the New Brunswick Legislature.

Edgar said to avoid delays in patient care, clinic staff will still be answering phone calls for the next month, but only to answer questions and direct clients to where they can turn to instead for abortions.

Surgical abortions are only paid for by Medicare at the two hospitals in Moncton and at Chaleur Hospital in Bathurst. No other hospital in New Brunswick offers the service.

Edgar said he's eager to work with any interested partners to try to address the gaps that will be created now that the clinic is closing.

"We are most concerned about patients for whom travel or a medication abortion is not an option due to financial reasons, mental health or addictions reasons, disability, age, financial or housing precarity, legal status or freedom of movement and personal security," he said.

29-year saga

Before Clinic 554 opened in 2015, the building housed the Morgentaler clinic, which opened in 1994 to provide surgical abortions.

However, the clinic's operators announced in spring 2014 they were being forced to close it over financial pressures also related to the province's unwillingness to fund clinic-based abortions through Medicare.

A majority helps Higgs avoid even symbolic defeats. On Thursday, for example, the PC majority was able to gut a motion demanding that surgical abortions at Clinic 554 be funded by Medicare.
A majority helps Higgs avoid even symbolic defeats. On Thursday, for example, the PC majority was able to gut a motion demanding that surgical abortions at Clinic 554 be funded by Medicare.

The Progressive Conservative government in New Brunswick has rejected calls that it allow Medicare to pay for abortions performed outside hospitals. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

While abortions are legal and funded by provincial governments in Canada, legislation in New Brunswick stipulates they only be covered by Medicare when provided within hospitals.

Despite repeated calls from advocates and the federal government for the province to change its policy on funding abortions, successive governments, including that of Premier Blaine Higgs, have chosen not to.

Edgar's last announcement about closing the clinic in 2019 triggered political sparring between the federal and provincial government, with Ottawa going as far as threatening to withhold health-care transfer payments to New Brunswick if it didn't extend its coverage to abortions performed outside hospitals.

The fate of Clinic 554 went on to become an issue in the 2020 federal election, with leaders from the New Democrat, Green and Liberal parties all weighing in.

The debate over access to abortion has continued since then, with supporters of Clinic 554 claiming its services are needed because women are waiting four to eight weeks for hospital abortions.

Other advocates of abortion access say no one is waiting more than two weeks, and some of the need is also being met through the use of the abortion pill Mifegymiso.

CBC News has asked for an interview with Health Minister Bruce Fitch about his government's latest stance on funding for clinic-based abortions.

Political opponents respond

Provincial Green Party Leader David Coon was at Wednesday's announcement and said if his government is elected, he'd change legislation to provide Medicare funding for abortions performed in settings such as Clinic 554.

Green Party Leader David Coon says if his part forms government, he'd extend Medicare coverage to surgical abortions performed in clinics.
Green Party Leader David Coon says if his part forms government, he'd extend Medicare coverage to surgical abortions performed in clinics.

Green Party Leader David Coon says if his part forms a government, he'd extend Medicare coverage to surgical abortions performed in clinics. (Pat Richard/CBC)

"When it comes to surgical abortions, this will be a significant gap in the capital region in New Brunswick, and Horizon needs to quickly run in to fill that gap in the short term," Coon said.

"And in the long term, as I said, a Green government will set up, establish community-based abortion services to ensure they're available to everyone in the province."

Opposition Liberal Leader Susan Holt said news about Clinic 554 closing was "extremely unfortunate," and vowed to change provincial legislation if her party formed government after this fall's election.

"It's frustrating because we saw what the government can do with cataract surgeries, why can't they do the same with abortion clinics?" said Holt, referring to a recent move by the Higgs government to fund cataract surgeries in private clinics.

"They can change the legislation to allow for public services to be funded at private clinics, but they won't do that because this is clearly an issue that the Higgs government doesn't want to touch."