Health Minister Gaetan Barrette announced Thursday that the abortion pill will be available free of charge in Quebec by the end of this fall.
This pill will be accessible by doctor's prescription only under a program administered by the Quebec health insurance board RAMQ.
The drug, called Mifegymiso or RU-486, was approved by Health Canada in 2015, though it faced delays and only entered the Canadian market in January. It is made by Linepharma International Limited and distributed by Celopharma Inc.
Mifegymiso currently costs about $300.
The abortion pill can be used up to seven weeks after conception, so women will be required to take an ultrasound to date the pregnancy. Women taking it will also need to have a medical follow-up.
“It is not the morning after pill. It’s totally different,” said Barrette. “That patient will have to meet and have a visit with a doctor to give her consent to go through the procedure, the administration of the drug. The drug cannot be administered and will never be administered if there is not proof that the pregnancy is under 49 days of duration.”
Mifegymiso is made up of two oral medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Prescribed together, the first causes the lining of the uterus to break down, and the second, taken 24 to 48 hours later, induces contractions that are similar to a miscarriage. This ends the pregnancy within two days.
Guidelines will be developed by the Quebec College of Physicians to ensure the pill is taken safely.
“This is good news for all Quebecers who want to use it rather than using traditional abortion services," said Barrette in a news release, adding that not only will it save the province money, but that Quebec women deserve to have access to it.
Quebec doctors will not be forced to offer the abortion pill, but Barrette said if a woman’s doctor does not want to prescribe it, many others will.
Reproductive medicine experts have called the drug the best known option for abortion.
The drug has been available since 1988 in France and nearly as long in Britain, and was approved for use in the United States in 2000. Women in 60 countries have access to the drug.
It is currently only available with a doctor’s prescription in Canada, though some countries have opted to allow the drug to be dispensed by pharmacies..
"There are more side effects, more risk of infections, and it is probably more traumatic than taking a pill," said Dr. Yves Robert with the College of Physicians. "So for all these reasons it is an abortion but it is a much lighter intervention than a surgical procedure."
Some advocates say Barrette needs to make sure women can get access to their doctors.
"We need to be mindful of how long it takes to access the ultrasound and that if we are going to give this pill and say you need to get an ultrasound that we also need to make sure it's quick and easy to get access to that ultrasound," said Andrea Clarke of Head and Hands.
In April, New Brunswick became the first province to offer the abortion pill for free. Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario are also following suit with free access.
In a study this spring in Ireland and Northern Ireland, about 95 per cent of 1,000 women reported successfully ending their pregnancy with Mifegymiso.
The researchers said less than 10 per cent reported symptoms of a potentially serious complication including very heavy bleeding, fever or persistent pain; a rate comparable to women who seek medical abortions. No deaths were reported.
Most women only reported mild to moderate side effects including cramping, nausea and headaches.
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press