It played out like clockwork: Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole pronounced his support for abortion rights and the Liberals rushed to point out his party’s record of doing the opposite.
But over Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s past six years in government, one which he says is feminist, what has he done to support or improve abortion services in Canada?
According to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, he could have done a lot more.
“The gaps that existed six years ago, well unfortunately, a lot of them still exist,” said Joyce Arthur, the advocacy group’s executive director.
One of the biggest, she says, is the lack of access to abortion services outside of larger cities. Those living in rural areas have to travel many hours in some cases because they have no doctors or facilities that provide surgical or medical abortions in their communities.
As of August 2019, one month before the last general election was called, seven out of 13 provinces and territories didn’t have a rural abortion provider, according to a list compiled by Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
Frederique Chabot, the organization’s director of health promotion, says that figure is hard to track given how it’s become easier for Mifegymiso, known as the abortion pill, to be prescribed, which has helped those living outside of cities.
Although this April’s federal budget wasn’t the first from the Liberals, it was the first to contain the word “abortion,” she noted.
The budget also pledged $45 million in funding for organizations like hers for sexual health services, which would include travel supports for those who live where abortions aren’t done.
That money likely won’t flow until the fall, after the Sept. 20 election, she added.
Under Liberal tenure, Chabot says she’s observed a “thawing” of federal departments toward abortion, but believes Ottawa could do more using its powers under the Canada Health Act, a federal law that governs publicly funded health care, to ensure provinces actually improve abortion services as it falls under their jurisdiction.
“If we keep saying, ‘We’re not reopening the debate,’ or like, ‘This is a person’s right to choose,’ and that’s all we protect, then we’re missing the mark,” she said.
“It doesn’t actually address the status quo, which is problematic. We’ve decriminalized abortion 30 years ago in the country and still, there are immense inequities in terms of access throughout the country.”
The Liberal government did use its authority under the Canada Health Act in New Brunswick to withhold some health transfer money over the province’s decision not to provide funding to Clinic 554 in Fredericton because of a provincial abortion law that prohibits it from paying for the service outside of its three approved hospitals.
Trudeau had initially threatened millions would stop flowing into New Brunswick over the dispute, but in reality, it amounted to a reduction of $140,216.
Arthur applauded the move, however, she noted Trudeau waited until the 2019 election campaign to pledge to stand up for abortion rights in the province despite being elected four years earlier.
“I was a bit disappointed that it took so long for them to take action.”
She believes significant strides could be made for abortion access in Canada if the federal government were to “double down” on enforcing the Canada Health Act.
Something else Arthur has advocated for is to get Health Canada to post information about abortion services on it website to provide people with a central location they can go to access accurate information about the procedure to combat any misinformation.
“It’s not unprecedented. Health Canada has some information, for example, on vaccines,” she pointed out.
Chabot added: “The government was right on top of making sure that the Canadian public had the right information to make informed decisions, and we need to see that happen around sexual health, around abortion specifically.”
When it comes to what the Trudeau government has done right, Arthur points to its decision to fund abortions overseas in developing countries in Africa, which didn’t happen under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.
And even though Trudeau’s rhetoric on reproductive rights doesn’t always translate into timely or consistent policy action, Arthur said his words do matter.
“He’s one of the, really, first prime ministers that actually stood up and just put it right out there.’