Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says he would leave it up to the New Brunswick government to decide how to provide and fund abortion services if he becomes prime minister.
During a stop in Fredericton on Friday, O'Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's repeated promises to force the province to pay for the service at Clinic 554 amount to politicizing the issue "for his own political gain and to divide Canadians."
He said in an interview it's "fundamental" that the federal government ensure there's access to abortion but "how the provinces run their health care systems is not what the federal government should be interfering with."
In his first visit to New Brunswick since becoming Conservative leader, O'Toole made stops in three ridings the Conservatives believe they can win in an election expected soon: Fredericton, Saint John-Rothesay and Miramichi-Grand Lake.
In the capital, he made a campaign-style promise to be "a federal funding partner" for a proposed aquatic centre the city has been wanting to build for years.
Clinic 554 is emerging as a key election issue in the province after Trudeau vowed again this week to pressure Premier Blaine Higgs to fund the procedure there.
O'Toole said he is pro-choice and that abortion services are "a right that needs to be maintained for people in all parts of the country, including here in New Brunswick."
But he said that is the case already given three hospitals in the province provide the service.
Trudeau promised in 2019 to "ensure" clinic abortions are funded, and this week he cited a reduction in federal health transfers to New Brunswick of $140,216 as evidence he is following through on that vow.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also promised July 23 that Ottawa would announce more measures "in the coming days," though that hasn't happened yet.
O'Toole accused the federal Liberals of hypocrisy for calling on the province to fund a service at a private clinic when it is already offered in three hospitals.
"I don't hear Mr. Trudeau advocating for private diagnostic clinics or surgical clinics for knees and hips and things like this," he said.
Clinic director disputes description
Clinic director Dr. Adrian Edgar said O'Toole's description of the clinic is misleading because all the other services it has provided are covered by Medicare, as in any doctor's office or clinic.
On the other hand, New Brunswick is the only province that refuses to fund abortions in such a clinic, he said.
"If a doctor wants to provide a service and it is a necessary service, the government's responsibility is simply to ensure public funding for it."
Abortions funded by Medicare are now provided at three hospitals in New Brunswick: two in Moncton — the Moncton Hospital and the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre — and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.
The Higgs government says that's enough to comply with the Canada Health Act. The premier has said if more access is needed, it could be offered in other hospitals.
Last week Horizon Health CEO Karen McGrath said the number of women seeking abortions at the Moncton Hospital has gone down 20 per cent over the last five years, meaning there's not enough demand to warrant more access in other hospitals.
"It is our position that there is no need to establish another service," she wrote.
Clinic 554 announced in 2019 it would soon close, blaming the province's refusal to fund abortions at the facility. The clinic also offered other services funded by Medicare.
Despite that warning, the clinic remains partially open, offering abortion and IUD services, but it relies on support from a national advocacy group and on Edgar's income from his work as a doctor for the Canadian military.
"We're still precariously positioned," he said.
O'Toole sees growth as key in region
On the federal equalization program that distributes money to have-not provinces, O'Toole said he's not in favour of adjusting the formula to account for the extra cost of health care for Atlantic Canada's older population.
Higgs and others have called for the formula to take that into account.
O'Toole, who recently said he'd tweak the formula to benefit oil-producing provinces like Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador when crude prices are low, said there are other ways to help this region deal with an aging population.
"The biggest thing we need to for New Brunswick and for Atlantic Canada writ large is economic opportunity, jobs and growth," he said.