Chelsey Buchanan: Giving a Voice to Prince Edward Island Women

I can relate to Chelsey Buchanan on a number of levels. We each grew up in communities that were fairly religious and traditionally conservative. Despite that, we each have a deep sense of justice. Chelsey’s courage, however, is a thing that is virtually unmatched.

Personally, I can remember how the rain cooled my face that dreary overcast afternoon when I accompanied my dad to an anti-choice rally in Saskatoon. It was the kind of day when every colour got washed up and consumed by grey clouds. The skin on my dad’s hand was rough and calloused, his fingers yellow from nicotine. He shifted nervously as he talked to me about the “sin” of abortion. People held up signs with images of partially formed foetuses. A young woman across the street hurried through the front doors of City Hospital. She looked terrified. The crowd I stood with chanted something about murder, which was probably directed at a crowd of pro-choice demonstrators across the street from us. I was maybe 7 or 8. Some years later, friends and I would heckle an openly pro-choice Liberal politician outside of our very Catholic elementary school as she headed in to cast her vote in that year’s federal election. The fact that we were encouraged to behave in such a hateful manner blows my mind. It took me years to recognize the importance of a woman’s agency, but once I understood it, the right to choose became pivotal in informing my feminist worldview.

In May, the CBC reported that Chelsey Buchanan, a courageous young Halifax woman, had offered to open her home to young women on Prince Edward Island seeking safe and legal access to abortion – women who otherwise might not have it, as abortions are not available on P.E.I.

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Upon reading that article, I began perusing its corresponding comment thread on Facebook. As I witnessed the sheer hatred, misogyny, and vitriol levelled against Chelsey, (and to an admittedly lesser extent, against me as soon as I spoke up), I knew I had to write something in response. I hadn’t actually written any articles at that point, so I was nervous and tentative, but I approached Chelsey and asked if we could discuss her story. To my astonishment, she agreed.

For context: abortion has been a legally guaranteed right in Canada since 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada overturned this nation’s abortion ban. (We were years behind Roe.) Abortion is a procedure that in some cases is medically necessary, and whose decision in all cases rests solely on the pregnant woman or girl in question. This is a simple concept that many fail to understand. In countries where education, birth control, and access to safe and legal abortion are denied or restricted, the rate of unsafe abortions (and abortions overall) invariably increases. Women will seek out the procedure at the expense of their own safety and of their lives when their right to choose has been denied, as is currently the case in much of the developing world.

Despite its status as a federally protected and guaranteed right, abortions are not offered on Prince Edward Island. This is allowed to occur in a time when restrictions are currently on the rise in the United States. Additionally, let’s not forget that Conservative private member’s bill that was introduced in the House of Commons a few years back, a bill that sought to undo progress that was centuries in the making.

Chelsey was reluctant to speak to me over the telephone, understandably. She’s been at the receiving end of a great deal of backlash. It’s also a matter of safety and common sense for her. We agreed to email each other. Chelsey confirmed that the inspiration came to her as she was reading The Sovereign Uterus, a blog dedicated to the experiences of Prince Edward Island women and their relative lack of reproductive choice. Upon reading a few women’s stories, she decided to open up her home “after reading that there were many women who were driving back to P.E.I. from Halifax, (roughly a 3-4 hour drive) alone, against doctors’ orders because they had no place to stay.”

I brought up the fact that we currently see abortion rights being eroded across North America, and that P.E.I. specifically is the only Canadian province that doesn’t offer the procedure. I wanted to know why Chelsey felt compelled to contribute in this way, and why she felt that now was the appropriate time for her. Here is what she had to say in response:

Well, being a woman, I couldn’t even imagine what going through an abortion would be like, especially alone. Being from P.E.I., I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be turned away for such a basic service that is offered in every other province in Canada, and being told that I have to drive to another place to access the procedure. There are a few other groups offering similar services within Nova Scotia and P.E.I., however, they are groups, and while they are helping a substantial amount, they are a group, not a person. I think that it helps to have a face to the offer, I feel like with that, you know you’re reaching out to a person who is willing to help, and not just a general group of multiple people.

Why now? Though abortion access has always been a problem on P.E.I., it seems to be just now that everyone is working together to share their stories and get the message out that there is something that needs to change. The P.E.I. government is taking away the right that a woman has to their body. They are basically saying that if you can’t afford the travel and accommodations, that you’re out of luck. I felt like now was the appropriate time to step up and offer what I have.

So it is a question of autonomy and privilege, then. She saw structural inequities, and she had both the empathy required to recognize them, and the desire and capacity to address them. This combination is rare. Add a dash of courage, and we have an unstoppable force.

Chelsey spoke to me about some of the backlash she’s encountered. Apparently it has not been restricted to social media: “Nothing directly threatening, just people yelling out of their cars with negative comments,” though she maintains that “most responses have been positive!” When I caught up with Chelsey a few weeks later, she told me she’s reached a place where she can laugh at the haters, who have no basis for their hate. To that, I would just like to respond that Chelsey is incredibly strong.

To clear up some misinformation: certain commenters on social media are of the misguided opinion that Chelsey’s intent was to perform abortions in her home. She states that this is not the case. (Phew!) Just the same, she’s been called a murderer by several individuals.

I asked Chelsey what she wants people to know about this issue, above everything else. She offered the following as a possible takeaway: “It would definitely be that I’m just here to offer accommodations and food. I’m not here to offer my opinion and I’m not here to perform abortions in my home. I am offering my home, and that is it. I am offering the support that many women need in their time of need. I am not murdering babies, I am supporting people who need access to abortion services.” Seems simple – yet heroic – enough.

When I approached Jane Ledwell for comment in early June, she had this to say in her capacity as Executive Director of P.E.I.’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women:

This week, the Province of PEI decreased the restrictions on access to abortion care for Prince Edward Island women, and this will make a difference for women who require access to abortion in the coming months. So, it is a small step towards better access. However, PEI remains the only province in Canada with no in-province local access, and this is unsustainable.

There is no medical or formal policy reason that this care is not offered in the province. We continue to support models that have been proposed by Health PEI for local clinic-based access within the province of PEI, and we will continue to support this until access is achieved.

Chelsey and her family have made a kind and generous offer for Prince Edward Island women, and it means a lot to people to know there are non-judgmental supports like her available. I think others have come forward to offer their homes and other supports in Moncton.

It is unacceptable that we have a system that relies on people’s goodwill and passing the hat at meetings to pay for travel and accommodations when abortion care is basic medical care that could easily be available tomorrow in PEI hospitals if government put political will behind access.

Bethany Toombs, a spokesperson for P.E.I.’s Abortion Rights Network, echoed Ms. Ledwell’s sentiments. Bethany is a high school teacher and a member of the Abortion Rights Network, a collective that seeks to effect change and provide resources for women and girls on Prince Edward Island. The organization has made a number of advances in the movement. We spoke at length about systemic factors that contribute to this problem.

She provided context, stating that there was a time when abortions were offered on the Island, but that at some point in the 1980s, the Protestant and Catholic churches (that owned all of the Island’s hospitals) amalgamated, Catholic officials stipulating that they would refuse to provide abortions once the merger took place. “It’s not illegal,” Bethany explains. There simply isn’t access on the Island. She cites “a lack of political will” as the cause for abortion rights still not being accessible on P.E.I. in 2015. Again, “political will” (a concept referred to by Jane Ledwell) seems paramount here.

While most residents of P.E.I. identify as pro-choice when polled, card-carrying members of the two major political parties, Liberal and Conservative, are staunchly anti-choice; and they have a great deal of influence on politicians and healthcare workers. The island culture is inherently traditional. Doctors will not self-identify as having any sort of willingness to refer women and girls to places where they can access abortions off island, so seeking a referral becomes something of a “guessing game”. It’s left to the doctors’ discretion; they are not obligated to refer patients in need of access.

Bethany explained that the recent legal advances to which Jane Ledwell referred in her statement have to do with the fact that women can now “self-refer,” should they decide to go to New Brunswick to access a safe and legal abortion. This saves the headache of going through doctors who are often unwilling to come through for them. Still, we discussed the fact that to leave Prince Edward Island costs nearly a $50.00 bridge toll, plus gas or a bus ticket. You can also ride the ferry. Should you decide to take a bus, you are looking at a minimum of $120.00. The provincial government will pay for a “bus subsidy” if you provide all of your income information and prove a lack of affordability. “It’s time sensitive too, so if you have to go show your income information to the government, get that processed to get your subsidy, I mean … and that’s assuming that you actually successfully found a doctor who would give you a referral. That alone can take a very long time, because nobody publicly will advertise that they’re the doctor that you should go see for this abortion referral letter.” This means that women and girls trying to navigate this bureaucracy could very well miss the brief window of opportunity afforded them.

I inquired about how a teenage girl would navigate this system, absent necessary resources and self-advocacy skills. Bethany told me that abortions in Halifax happen early in the morning on a weekday. I struggle to imagine how a young teenage girl – assuming for a moment that she found a way to circumnavigate all that bureaucratic red tape in order to make her way to Halifax for an abortion – would be able to sneak off of the island that she lives on, on a school night, referral and hypothetical bus subsidy in hand, and show up at a Halifax hospital for intake early on a specific weekday morning. That would take a level of courage, daring, and gaul difficult for the bravest of souls to conjure.

I fear for those girls. I’m grateful for the fact that there are high school teachers like Bethany Toombs, and generously engaged citizens like Chelsey Buchanan. The world needs more of them.

When I asked Bethany to comment specifically on Chelsey’s situation, she responded in part:

I wish she didn’t have to do what she’s doing. I think it’s a sad reflection of our government when that kind of story even has to be printed … What she’s offering specifically is not new, but the fact that she is publicly putting her face and her name with it? That is what’s different about Chelsey. ‘Cause, this network of getting people from P.E.I. off island and to stay places, that has been going on for quite a while. But it’s really courageous for her to put her face forward, and I know, from – I don’t know her specifically, but I know other people in my group who have done similar things like that, with their name and their face associated with the issue. They face horrific backlash from people.

These women are on the front lines day in and day out, and they have venom spewed at them by misogynist and religious members of anti-choice organizations. I was brought up Catholic. I was taught to think that way and it stuck until I reached my twenties; then something happened: I began to think for myself. Around the time that I came out in my late teens as a matter of fact, I knew that I could no longer belong to an institution that preached that I was going to hell. In the years that followed, a sort of fog lifted for me, and I was able to look at the world from a secular and egalitarian perspective. Suddenly, things made sense to me. Life was more nuanced than I had previously been led to believe.

At one point in the interview, I asked Bethany what she wanted people to know above everything else. She spoke of how isolating it is for women who live in the only province in Canada that doesn’t offer abortions, and the stigma that they face as a result of this policy. She continues, “I think the stigma of ‘not in our province’ is what needs to change. That is where islanders should be ashamed of their healthcare system, that we continue to kind of cast women off the island literally, because we don’t – you know – supposedly agree with the choice that they’re making. So it’s a stigma that island women face that I think you just don’t face in other provinces.” There is a substantial financial cost for women to leave the Island to access services. It’s a cost that not everyone is privileged enough to be able to afford. These women are geographically and legislatively isolated. Chelsey, Bethany, Jane, and others are fearlessly working to change that.

Bethany echoed Chelsey’s thoughts on the timing, stating “I’ve been active on these issues for years, but it’s just even in the last six months that there’s been a huge explosion of conversation around it, and that’s what we need on P.E.I. Change does not happen here over night, so we’re grateful to everyone who’s contributing to it.” And we’re grateful to you.

UPDATE: I initially reported that abortions in Halifax were performed on Tuesday mornings. I am not certain that that is the correct day, but they are offered on specific weekdays. I have modified the article to reflect this.

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