Interview with Emma Duke – Board Director of Communications, Abortion Support Services Atlantic

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Emma Duke is the Board Director of Communications on the Board of Directors of the Abortion Support Services Atlantic (Halifax, Nova Scotia). Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: For the abortion services in the Atlantic, what are the important points to bear in mind?

Emma Duke: Abortion Support Services Atlantic (ASSA) is a 100% volunteer-run organization. We are a grass-roots, pro-choice feminist group working to increase access to abortion, while also providing education and outreach.

ASSA delivers abortion doula training throughout the Atlantic provinces, where volunteers are trained to provide non-medical support to people who are ending their pregnancy.

This can include emotional support before, during or after an abortion, information, assistance with transportation and navigating the healthcare system.

Jacobsen: How was the Abortion Support Services Atlantic founded?

Duke: Shannon Hardy founded ASSA in 2012 as a response to the major gaps in services for people accessing abortion services in the maritime provinces.

Knowing that transportation is a major barrier, at the time residents of PEI had to leave the island to terminate a pregnancy, coupled with stigma and difficulty navigating the healthcare system, Shannon decided to do something about it.

She started a Facebook group connecting people seeking abortion services to volunteers. It has since grown into a well-known group, having served over 300 people. Shannon regularly facilitates abortion doula training throughout the Atlantic region.

Jacobsen: What have been the major stages of growth and development for Abortion Support Services Atlantic?

Duke: In 2017 we changed our name from Maritime Abortion Support Services To Abortion Support Services Atlantic to recognize Newfoundland and Labrador.

We had already been doing education and outreach in the province, so we wanted our name to reflect that. Most recently, we announced our inaugural board of directors in January 2019 and we are currently in the process of becoming a registered non-profit organization.

Jacobsen: Who has been the main opposition to the provision of abortion services in this geographic locale? Why?

Duke: ASSA was founded and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, yet any opposition from the community is generally the same in each of the Atlantic provinces. The most vocal opposition include faith-based groups that campaign from an anti-choice perspective.

Jacobsen: What have been their central tactics in the past?

Duke: These groups tend to use scare tactics that are not based on fact or evidence-based research. For example, one group was espousing that surgical abortion causes breast cancer.

Instilling fear in people who may be feeling vulnerable is a common theme we see. Harassment is another tactic used, where protestors will rally and even take photos of people entering and leaving the clinic.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, “bubble zone” legislation was introduced in 2016 to create safe access zones around abortion clinics. Anti-choice groups were harassing physicians and other service providers at the clinic and outside their own homes.

Another tactic that has been used by anti-choice groups are crisis pregnancy centers. These are clinics that on the surface appear to offer abortion as an option for unplanned pregnancies, however actually operate with an anti-abortion agenda.

These are extremely dangerous because folks who are unaware and enter the crisis pregnancy centers are often counselled against having abortions. The tactics used are espousing false medical information, deceptive advertising and use of ultrasound.

Ultrasound imaging is used as a last-ditch effort into pressuring service users into keeping the pregnancy. Again, these centers are often run by faith-based groups or organizations. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada maintains an up to date list of crisis pregnancy centers in Canada.

Jacobsen: What have been their central tactics in the present?

Duke: We’re definitely noticing that anti-choice rhetoric and campaigns are moving beyond the traditional protests outside of clinics. In 2018 Dartmouth, Nova Scotia witnessed the emergence of a billboard with anti-choice content on one of the area’s busiest roads.

The organization mentioned on the billboard is actually based in British Columbia, which shows us just how far-reaching and damaging the anti-choice messages are. These campaigns to make abortion illegal fuel the stigma around accessing abortion services.

New Brunswick has one abortion clinic, Clinic 554, which opened after the Morgentaler Clinic closed its doors. Located right next door is the Women’s Care Center, a crisis pregnancy center. Again, we understand their approach to be deceptive, false information and scare-tactics.

Jacobsen: How can other organizations and activists anticipate, prepare for, and overcome such efforts in the future?

Duke: It’s important to be able to recognize what a crisis pregnancy center looks like and not refer people there. It’s also important to do your homework: learn who the anti-choice groups are and how they operate.

Be prepared to debunk their false information and come equipped with actual facts. Working together is very important, especially at the grassroots level.

ASSA strives to build healthy relationships with clinics, abortion providers and our volunteers. Trust is a major component in this work.

Jacobsen: What are the main concerns for Abortion Support Services Atlantic and its constituency now?

Duke: As a growing organization, we’re hoping to expand our reach beyond Nova Scotia. Two of our board members are located in Newfoundland and Labrador and we’re hoping that will help our outreach.

Our volunteer list is growing and we hope to improve access to abortions for folks living in rural and remote areas.

Jacobsen: How can the public become more involved, help protect the services, and expand the provision of safe and equitable abortion services – as a fundamental human right – in the Atlantic?

Duke: This comes down to reproductive healthcare. Making decisions about one’s own body and reproductive choices is a basic human and healthcare right.

I think it’s important to keep that message on the forefront in order for the public to become more involved and protect access to abortion services. Having a public platform to educate and inform the public can be powerful in fuelling advocacy as well.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Duke: While we have made strides in reproductive healthcare, there is still a lot of work to be done. Mifegymiso is still not covered by all provincial health plans throughout the country.

Folks living in rural communities face tremendous barriers in accessing abortion services, whether it be surgical or medical. Either case requires an ultrasound, which can be challenging to obtain in remote communities. Transportation is another obstacle.

Anyone living in Labrador has to travel to St. John’s for a surgical abortion. Factored into the cost is flight, accommodations, gas, and potentially missing days of work. After 35 years, Prince Edward Island recently opened their first abortion clinic in Summerside.

However, travel is still a major barrier for accessing the service. Throughout the Atlantic provinces, coverage for abortions is also dependant on location in some areas. If a surgical abortion is performed in a clinic, it is not always covered by the provincial health plan.

We would like to see full coverage regardless of where the procedure occurs, the removal of mandatory ultrasound and counselling and other barriers removed for folks living in rural and remote communities.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Emma.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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