Women in Nunavut still face barriers to abortion access

‘It’s difficult to be discreet about your health when you have to fly out’

Gerri Sharpe, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, says women in Nunavut face barriers to getting abortions, but Inuit midwives could help improve access. (Photo courtesy of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada)

By Emma Tranter

In Nunavut, access to abortion depends on where you live.

When a woman living in a community on north Baffin Island decided she wanted the procedure in 2015, her only option was to fly just over 1,000 kilometres to Iqaluit, where she had to stay for three days.

It not only meant she couldn’t have support by her side, she couldn’t keep it a secret, either.

“It’s difficult to be discreet about your health when you have to fly out,” said the woman, who Nunatsiaq News has agreed not to name to protect her privacy.

“Why would a healthy woman go to Iqaluit for medical [travel]? I couldn’t hide the fact I needed one.”

A woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy suffered a major blow in the United States last week when its Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that guaranteed that right for close to 50 years.

Now, individual states can decide whether or not to allow their citizens to access abortions. This not only means women in states where abortion becomes illegal may have to travel to get this care, in some cases they could face legal repercussions if they try.

While the right to access abortion is not a legal question in Canada, actually obtaining one is a complicated process for women in Nunavut’s remote communities.

Abortions in Nunavut are free for Inuit beneficiaries and are covered under Nunavut health care, but the territory does not pay for a medical escort.

Medical abortions, which are available to women until their 10th week of pregnancy, require taking a medication called Mifegymiso. Although it can technically be taken anywhere, it’s only available in Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay and Iqaluit, said Dr. Fiona Main, a physician at Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit.

That’s because there is no surgeon or blood available in other communities in the case of complications that could come from taking the drug.

“We’re so under-resourced in the communities, it has to be done in the hub communities,” Main said.

Surgical abortions are only offered within Nunavut at Qikiqtani hospital, up to 13 weeks.

Main noted that although accessing abortion services in Nunavut is complicated, the procedure itself is straightforward.

“I don’t think abortion is often traumatic …  It’s usually something that is more of a relief. They’ve made that decision for a reason that we need to respect,” she said.

The woman from north Baffin Island shared Main’s view.

“When I did go, I expected to grieve. I did not, I was relieved, and feel guilty for feeling so,” she said.

Main said women in Nunavut not only face barriers to accessing abortion, but also to receiving reproductive health care in general.

“I don’t think you can talk about lack of access to abortion without talking about things like lack of access to contraception and the morning-after pill,” she said.

A 2019 report from Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada underscores Main’s point. It states staff shortages in Nunavut’s health centres directly affect the quality of contraceptive and therapeutic abortion counselling available.

“A lack of cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural communication problems with transient non-Inuit health care providers also are big issues,” the report states.

Beyond the geographical barriers, Inuit face stigma around getting an abortion, said Gerri Sharpe, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. She pointed to a lack of privacy, as well as family beliefs, as challenges to accessing this type of care.

Sharpe said she would like to see Inuit midwives in all of Nunavut’s communities, something Pauktuutit is actively pushing the federal and territorial governments to provide.

“Midwives can help when it comes to reproductive counselling and reproductive choices. It would be culturally relevant,” Sharpe said.

“At the end of the day, it’s a woman’s choice. We have to respect that.”


Share This Story

(8) Comments:

  1. Posted by Shawn on

    People in nunavut still face barriers to public housing access.

    • Posted by John K on

      Wrong article.

      Stay on topic or find the topic you want to talk about.

  2. Posted by Oh? on

    Oh ya let’s fight for an abortion clinic in grise fiord. Also, can’t get child tax if you get an abortion.

  3. Posted by Same old axe, same old grind on

    I’d like to see all these people who point out the deficiencies in Nunavut health care just once recognize the solution – people in Nunavut have to stay in school, get the appropriate education and start providing their own health care.

    That said, tiny communities can never provide all the specialized services that people desire or require. The answer for that is to move to a bigger one, if you want to never have to fly out for health care (and you need to live in a big city if you want almost everything provided right at home.)

    I’m not sure what these activists are getting at with these constant complaints about how you can’t get all your needs met in a tiny community, and how unfair that supposedly is. That has always been true, everywhere in the world. You’ll never have all health services available in any place other than a large city.

  4. Posted by Taxpayer on

    Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights in 2019 reported that Nunavut has 2 abortion providers, or 1 abortion clinic for every 4,832 females aged 15-29, a significantly lower ratio than most other provinces. For example in Alberta, there is only one abortion clinic for every 209,000 females in that age group. Nunavut has no privately funded anti-abortion clinics either, putting us ahead of most other places in Canada. We do not have organized groups actively pressuring females not to have an abortion. If any anti-abortion protesters have ever tried picketing up here, it would be news to most. The gestational limit for an abortion in Nunavut is 19 weeks and 6 days. This is weeks longer than Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, and the Yukon. Around 100 abortions are performed in Nunavut per year. Given the size of our female population of child bearing age, we are pretty well on par with the rest of Canada in terms of abortion rate. Perceptions that there are barriers to abortion in Nunavut are there. And the mental struggles women face are also real, but hardly unique to Nunavut. The same privacy issues for abortions surround each and every health intervention for someone living in a small, inter-related community. The reality is, given the battered state of the Nunavut health care system, abortion access and use is remarkably open and unhindered, compared to many other places in the country. So perhaps we should take a break from bashing things just because this issue has suddenly become newsworthy due to the US.

    • Posted by Anonymous on

      The article states abortion up to 13 weeks in Nunavut (not 19 and 6 days!)

  5. Posted by Tom E Hawk. on

    Very true, Same old axe and grind ! !
    Too many people talk without thinking because they are ignorant, and they are looking for
    away to enrich themselves, as long as someone else is paying for it.
    Nunavut is very fortunate that the Canadian people are very supportive toward them.
    I always hear about moving back to the land for a traditional life style
    Fine , go for it.

    • Posted by Decolonize health on

      Traditional methods for controlling unwanted births are not be be discussed I see. What a farce


Comments are closed.