By Thandiwe Konguavi
Staff Writer

The Alberta government has now made the Mifegymiso abortion drug available free of charge, but Catholic doctors who refuse to prescribe it warn that it not only ends the life of the unborn child; it may harm the mother as well.

“I feel my duty is to protect both the child and the mother during pregnancy and treat them as two patients and no longer just one,” said Dr. Martin Owen, a family physician based in Red Deer and vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, which represents more than 200 physicians and 13 physicians groups across the country.

As of July 24, Alberta women now have free access to the medical abortion pill, which is used to terminate a pregnancy of up to 49 days.

“Women’s reproductive options should not be determined by their income or where they live,” Alberta Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said in a news release. “By providing universal coverage for Mifegymiso, we’re supporting greater choice for women when it comes to their reproductive health.”

That doesn’t mean doctors are required to prescribe it. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta upholds the conscience rights of a physician to decline to provide a treatment or procedure based on his/her freedom of conscience and religion. Covenant Health, Canada’s largest Catholic healthcare organization, will not dispense it at any of its hospitals across Alberta, including Grey Nuns and Misericordia hospitals in Edmonton.

“In keeping with Catholic social teachings and our commitment to upholding the sacredness of life, Covenant Health does not perform abortions and will not carry, stock or dispense the drug,” Dr. Gordon Self, vice-president of ethics and mission for Covenant Health, said in a statement.

Dr. Thomas Bouchard, a Catholic family medicine physician based in Calgary, describes this freedom of conscience as vital.

“I think a hallmark of a tolerant society is being respectful of differences and not coercing people to do something against their will,” said Bouchard, who is also a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, which represents 1,600 doctors and dentists.

“The reality is that because I don’t participate in (abortion) and referral is a form of participation, a patient for any procedure that I wouldn’t perform or refer would have to see somebody else.”

Patients who ask doctors such as Owen and Bouchard about getting the drug will instead be given information about it, including the health risks.

“The fact that such a pill would be marketed and available to Canadian women, when in the trial a Canadian woman died from taking it, is deplorable in my opinion,” said Bouchard.

The death of a Canadian woman in 2001 caused clinical trials to be halted in Canada for mifepristone, also known as RU-486, which in combination with misoprostol, is sold as Mifegymiso.

An application for approval was re-submitted to Health Canada in 2012 with risk minimization strategies including a restrictive distribution and administration program and an education and registration program for prescribers. Health Canada approved the application in 2015.

According to Health Canada, there have been more than 2,200 serious adverse reactions and 14 deaths associated with the drug in the United States.

The Alberta Health Minister’s office calls the drug “both legal and safe,” but Owen said he wants to see women get the full facts.

“I feel that (proponents) are blinded by their activism for abortion services to be universally available and covered and as easy as possible, but they forget the clear negative consequences that do occur for women who choose these paths,” he said.

“Sharing any negative information about abortion or contraception is seen as a means to prevent women from accessing these services instead of just presenting the information and allowing women to make the decision for themselves. So I would continue to encourage people to continue to demand clinical and academic honesty from physicians and from government.”

Half a dozen pro-life protesters picketed outside the Chateau Lacombe Hotel in Edmonton during a July 18 panel discussion on how Mifegymiso would be universally covered.

“This drug is really a reckless way for the province’s aim to increase abortion in Alberta,” said Cameron Wilson, political coordinator for The Wilberforce Project, a pro-life advocacy group based in Alberta.

Wilson took aim at the government’s marketing of universal coverage for the drug to women in rural communities. Hoffman had said that for far too long, women in rural communities have had to travel to major urban centres to receive a surgical abortion.

“What that’s saying to rural women is the government is OK with a higher rate of risk for rural women than urban,” said Wilson.

The minister’s office said they received lots of feedback since announcing that Mifegymiso would be covered.

“There are many different views on abortion and we are always open to hearing them, but we made this decision because the Alberta government strongly supports greater reproductive health options for women,” said a statement from the minister’s office.

Owen said the universal coverage of Mifegymiso does open up a discussion about abortion policy.

“It gives the public another opportunity to realize what’s covered by their tax dollars and to be better educated on the subject.”

This article was corrected on August 10, 2017.