Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has waded back into the politics of abortion in New Brunswick with a campaign promise to adopt a more explicit legal requirement that provinces provide access to the service.
Trudeau released his full campaign platform Wednesday, including a promise to adopt regulations under the Canada Health Act so that "there is no question" that Canadians have "access to publicly available sexual and reproductive health services" wherever they live.
"Failure on the part of a province to meet this standard would result in an automatic penalty applied against federal health transfers," the platform says.
The promise seems squarely aimed at New Brunswick, where Premier Blaine Higgs and his predecessors have refused to have Medicare funding cover abortions at Fredericton's Clinic 554.
But it's not clear how much would change if Trudeau wins and the regulation is adopted.
The Liberals have long argued that the existing wording of the Canada Health Act already obligates New Brunswick to fund abortions at the clinic. The law says nothing can "impede ... directly or indirectly … reasonable access" to publicly funded health services.
And their government already withheld $140,216 in this year's budget from health transfers to the province over the alleged violation, the equivalent of what Medicare would have paid for the service at the clinic.
University of New Brunswick law professor Kerri Froc said the promise undermines Trudeau's past rhetoric about Clinic 554 funding.
"That to me seems to suggest there is a question now, and there isn't. What's at issue now is the political appetite of the federal government to enforce the Canada Health Act."
Trudeau did not respond directly Wednesday when a reporter asked him why the law needs to be more specific if he has already withheld funding.
"We need to be a country that stands unequivocally for women's rights, for a woman's right to choose," he said. "And that's not a theoretical right, it is also a very practical right that involves being able to access reproductive health and services right across the country."
Froc said there is "no question" that the Canada Health Act "prohibits exactly what the [provincial] government is doing, and the federal government has commented on that for years.
"I'm all for clarity in legislation but it seems to be a bit defensive, that they want to justify that there hadn't been more movement on their previous campaign promise."
In 2019, Trudeau promised to "ensure" the Higgs government funded abortions at the clinic.
Fredericton Green candidate and law professor Nicole O'Byrne agreed with Froc.
"The law doesn't need to be changed," she said on Twitter. "It just needs to be enforced."
But Liberal candidate Jenica Atwin says a more explicit reference to reproductive health might finally resolve the issue.
"It's high time that it become something that we reaffirm because it just seems to keep cropping up as an election issue," she said.
"To think this is something we have to keep rehashing again and again is frustrating from a women's position. … It's hopefully the final way to put it to rest."
Higgs argues New Brunswick is already complying with the Canada Health Act by offering publicly funded access to abortion services in three New Brunswick hospitals.
Froc said Higgs could still advance that same interpretation even with the Liberals' more specific wording, unless they set out maximum distances people have to travel for abortion — something that would be "a little dicey" for Ottawa to impose.
Clinic 554 announced in 2019 it would soon have to 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, providing some abortion and birth control services.
Trudeau would also not answer directly Wednesday when asked why the reference to reproductive health would be in a regulation drafted by cabinet rather than in the Canada Health Act itself, which would require a vote by Parliament.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole said last month that while he is pro-choice, he would not interfere with provinces making their own health-care decisions.
Tobique-Mactaquac Conservative candidate Richard Bragdon said Wednesday he doesn't think provincial premiers will appreciate Trudeau's new promise.
"I think there's a lot of frustration from Canadians from coast to coast seeing an ever-increasing federal government overreach into areas of provincial jurisdiction," he said.