OTTAWA — 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 the ten provinces and territories didn't have a rural abortion provider, according to a list compiled by Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
Arthur says the women most impacted are those living in remote northern areas, as well as in rural Saskatchewan, Alberta and the East Coast.
Provincial governments control health care, but Arthur and others argue Ottawa could do more, including providing more funding to expand services, and using its powers under a federal law that governs publicly funded health care.
"I would say the big thing is to double down on enforcing the Canada Health Act to make sure that access to abortion and other reproductive health care is truly equitable across the provinces," said Arthur.
The Liberal government did use that mechanism 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."
Something else Arthur says she's 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.
When it comes to what the Trudeau government has done right, she 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."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press