Many abortion providers in British Columbia still keep their services secret

In 1994, Dr. Garson Romalis, an abortion service provider in Vancouver, was shot dead by a high-powered gun while eating breakfast at his kitchen table. He survived, only to be stabbed in the back outside his office six years later.

In both cases, Dr. Romalis was targeted for providing abortion services.

Although more than 20 years have passed since the last major violent incident targeting abortion providers in British Columbia, many still fear for their lives and livelihoods, says Michelle Fortin, executive director of Options for Sexual Health BC

Her organization, a social purpose organization linked to Planned Parenthood, keeps its list of abortion providers hidden in British Columbia for safety reasons, especially in northern and interior communities where anti-abortion attitudes are more widespread.

“It’s very sad that we’re still in a place in 2022 where someone who provides health care to the 50% of the population who can get pregnant…has to worry about their safety,” Fortin said. .

Hidden services

Stigma surrounding abortions can still create barriers for those seeking to access medical help, especially in more rural communities. (Nicole Mason/Unsplash/CC0)

While opinion polls show that Canadians are generally in favor of access to abortion, anti-abortion attitudes persist across the country, sometimes in very visible ways.

Communities like Smithers and West Kelowna, British Columbia, posted large anti-abortion billboards while the leader of the pro-life Christian Heritage Party received nearly 800 votes as he stood was running for a seat in northwestern British Columbia in the last federal election.

Knowing that these feelings exist in their communities can lead medical providers to want to keep their position on abortion secret, Fortin says.

This discretion can also make abortion services appear less accessible than they actually are. In infographic shared online this weekonly 24 abortion providers are listed in British Columbia, almost all of them in urban centers – when in fact there are many more.

Fortin’s organization has a list of 50 providers in 35 communities, including several rural and northern locations, most of whom do not want their information posted online.

In order to connect with one of these unlisted providers, patients must contact an organization like Options for Sexual Health BC, which screens callers before forwarding their information to a clinic in their community. Many of these providers then use unlisted phone numbers and separate email addresses to connect with people seeking care until they are confident in their safety.

“The reality is that providers recognize that there is still, unfortunately, a stigma attached to providing [abortion] and because of that, they worry about how they and maybe their families might be treated,” Fortin says.

honest conversations

Libby Schofield of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights says honest conversations are needed to de-stigmatize abortion services.

Schoffeild says people who share their stories can help organizations like Action Canada and Options for Sexual Health BC better serve those seeking to access abortion services as well.

Education groups also say it’s important for people to be aware of the full range of options available to people seeking reproductive health care, such as receiving prescriptions via telehealth and by mail.

Ultimately, however, Fortin says she also helps patients, doctors and providers do what they need to do to feel safe.

“And so, if right now that means they have to be a little more discreet about it, then we will support that. We will also continue to advocate and speak very loudly and proudly about access to all opportunities for reproduction, including abortion.”

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