By Faye Sonier
In January 2012, the Ontario government quietly passed an amendment to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). As a result of the amendment individuals are no longer being permitted to make access to information requests for data related to the provision of abortion services.
But did the amendment intend that no information – not even generalized, non-identifying data – could be released?
The legal community was confused. A number of lawyers and law firms released commentary stating that the amendment likely applied to hospital records but not aggregate Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) billing records. However, if it didn’t apply to OHIP billing records, it would still be possible to determine how many abortions were paid for by Ontario tax-payers.
This kind of data is invaluable. In 2010, it’s estimated that over $30 million was spent on government funded abortions in Ontario. That’s no small chunk of change. Tax-payers have a right to know that.
Citizen access to government information is a basic democratic principle. As Moira Patterson, a professor of freedom of information and privacy law has said, “Governments everywhere have a natural inclination towards secrecy. However, in a genuinely democratic society access to information is necessary for the 'open debate, discussion, criticism and dissent, which are regarded as central to the making of 'informed and considered choices.” Our ability to exercise our democratic rights and responsibilities are effectively void without access to information. It’s for these reasons that journalists frequently make freedom of information requests; to find out what our government is doing and how much it is spending doing it.
Without this data, as Maloney states in her press release, how are Ontarians, particularly organizations such as youth and women’s health groups, going to monitor trends and determine if government or non-profit programming is effective? If a group launches a provincial safe-sex program, without abortion data, how will it assess if the program was effective? Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised to re-introduce what some consider a radical sex-education program. How will Ontarians determine if that is tax-dollars well spent? There is no way to know if such a program would cut the rate of teen abortions or spike them if the government hides the data.
Interestingly, without even knowing the amendment had been made to the law, Maloney made a simple access to information request for some generalized OHIP billing information. She wasn’t seeking names of patients or doctors, or the identity of hospitals that provide abortions. She just wanted the numbers and statistics that are generally available for all medical procedures performed in the province. This is something that Maloney has been doing for years. This time, the Ministry of Health came back and refused to provide the information based on this new amendment to FIPPA. Maloney broke the story on her blog and it became a national issue.
So now Maloney has to invest significant time, money and resources to fight this fight. It’s a fight to ensure that Ontarians can keep their provincial representatives accountable on health care costs and programming. And this isn’t just Maloney’s fight. This is a fight for all Ontarians.
Are we comfortable with the government deciding what information we can and can’t access about their activities and funding? If we’re comfortable with one $30 million a year restriction, what’s next?
What Ontario’s government did to restrict otherwise generally available data from its citizens is unthinkable and arrogant. It tells me that they don’t think the people who elected them are entitled to know how their tax dollars are being spent or if government programing is effective. Frankly, passing this amendment was a condescending move. Hats off to Maloney for taking the government on.
For more information about abortion data suppression in Ontario, download a copy of EFC's report Black Holes: Canada's Missing Abortion Data. It clearly and concisely explains how abortion data is collected in Canada, and how the Ontario government has restricted the release of data to its citizens.