Canada’s first birth control clinic, started in Hamilton nearly 85 years ago, is closing its doors.
At the end of the month, Health Initiatives for Youth (HIFY) Hamilton, the organization that Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw helped turn into a then-illegal birth control clinic, will come to an end after losing its city funding.
“It’s a proud history that’s now going to disappear,” said Dr. Brian Steele, medical director of the organization, located at 151 York Blvd. “There’s as much need for it now as ever.”
HIFY has previously operated under a variety of banners, including the Planned Parenthood Society of Hamilton (1952-2002), the Birth Control Society (1932-1952), and The Maternal Health Clinic (1931-1932).
The facility is most famous for Bagshaw’s 31 years as medical director of the Birth Control Society during a controversial period for contraceptives. Bagshaw’s work at the facility contributed to her being honoured as Hamilton’s Citizen of the Year in 1970 and being named to the Order of Canada in 1972.
Hamilton Public Health has been funding the organization since 1970 when it operated under the Planned Parenthood Society of Hamilton.
Glenda McArthur, director of clinical and preventive services at the city, says that funding was started because women “weren’t always comfortable going to their family doctor” for their sexual health issues.
Now, she says, the lost services will be picked up by the new McMaster Health Centre facility opening at the end of April.
“It’s downsizing,” said Steele. “(The services) should be expanding to the population of Hamilton, not contracted.”
HIFY offered a variety of services to about 3,000 youth per year, including sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, pregnancy testing and affordable birth control.
McArthur says public health was only sponsoring the program for its sexual health programs and not for birth control, so the new McMaster facility will meet their needs more specifically.
The city had informed HIFY they would not be renewing a contract as early as 2012.
Steele doesn’t blame the city for the imminent closing of the facility, but rather its inability to garner the interest of “private benefactors” that would have offered the organization some security.
The notion that youth centres such as HIFY might be promoting sex is part of an image problem that Steele believes is detrimental to its cause.
“Young girls are going to have sex, and young guys are going to have sex, so we have to give them better education,” he said.
Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, said his main concern is that with the closing of HIFY — a former member of his organization — youth won’t feel as comfortable at the new facility.
“When any organization like this closes, we really hope this is part of a really thoughtful process, and that the city engages with the community to ensure that barriers for youth are actively addressed within the new clinic that is set up.”
McArthur said the move is “not part of a cost-saving measure,” adding that the new facility will offer both the university and those seeking sexual health services access to a downtown facility at Main Street West and Bay Street South.
Jane Howard, a staff nurse at HIFY, said she will miss the service she provided and the patients she’s seen.
“It’s going to leave an empty space,” she said.