OTTAWA — Access to safe and legal abortions will be protected in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.
But the Liberal government is not yet clear on exactly what that will mean in action.
A leaked draft ruling from the United States Supreme Court that would strike down the national right to legal abortions in that country put abortion back on the front burner in Canada this week.
Conservative MPs, warned off by their party leadership from commenting on the U.S. situation, are going out of their way to avoid the discussion. But Liberal MPs, who have long used abortion as a wedge issue against the Tories, were lining up to talk to reporters about it both before and after their weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa Wednesday.
On his way into that meeting, Trudeau said his government will never stop defending and protecting the right to a safe and legal abortion in Canada.
"The freedom of a woman to choose belongs to her and her alone," Trudeau said.
And, he said, he has already directed Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Status of Women Minister Marci Ien "to look at the legal framework" around abortion services to ensure "that not just under this government, but under any future government, the rights of women are properly protected."
The ministers were told to pursue that objective in their mandate letters in December and Duclos said Tuesday the results of that work are imminent.
During the election, the Liberals promised to introduce regulations under the Canada Health Act to ensure abortion services were clearly medically necessary and to be publicly funded.
That promise grew from a disagreement between Ottawa and New Brunswick about whether the province had to fund abortions at a private clinic. Premier Blaine Higgs argued the province was already funding abortions at three hospitals and did not have to do so at Clinic 554 in Fredericton.
Health Canada clawed back transfer payments to New Brunswick equal to the amount it says was charged to patients by the clinic for abortions. A spokesman says in March $65,000 was clawed back for the 2020-21 period in New Brunswick. Ontario had $6,560 clawed back for a similar issue.
Questions have arisen about whether the Canada Health Act is clear enough about what provinces are required to do in providing abortion services.
Following the caucus meeting, Families Minister Karina Gould said the plan is to use regulations to provide that clarity.
But House Leader Mark Holland said "it's too early to hypothesize" what the government may do to protect access to abortions in Canada, including going further than regulations and using legislation to do it.
"I think we need to take a step back and make sure we do it right and that it’s not reactionary," he said. "I don’t have an immediate comment on what form that may or may not take, other than to say this government is prepared to do everything to ensure those rights are protected."
The NDP say the Liberals need to do more than talk about protecting a right to choose, and ensure women can access abortions everywhere.
"Right now, what we're up against in a real and concrete way for women in Canada is a serious concern about access," NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday.
"Women cannot get access in many communities. Rural communities, Indigenous communities, it is impossible to find anything locally so there are folks — women are driving hundreds of kilometres. Sometimes it requires a three-day trip to get an abortion," he said.
"And while the Liberals are caught up in fighting the Conservatives over the right, neither of them have done anything to meaningfully expand access."
Trudeau defended the government's record on abortion, pointing to a three-year $45-million fund for community organizations to improve access to sexual and reproductive health care information and services for vulnerable populations. And he said the government is investigating barriers to abortion access across the country with a view to fixing it.
But promises made in the last election have thus far gone untouched. Duclos said funding already existed for a promised $10-million information portal to provide "accurate, judgment-free, and evidence-based information" on reproductive health and rights, but there was no mention of it in the Liberals' April budget.
Nor was there the $10 million for youth organizations to "respond to the unique sexual and reproductive health needs of young people."
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has also not moved to cut the charity status of anti-abortion groups including Crisis Pregnancy Centres,
Abortion is decriminalized in Canada because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision here, but no bill has ever been passed enshrining that right into law.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2022.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press