OTTAWA, Ont. — The Canadian government has announced funding to improve access to abortions as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces questions about his direction on abortion rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court disclosure on Roe v. Wade.
Trudeau is under pressure to make good on his promises to expand access to abortion services since POLITICO reported last week on a draft of a majority opinion that would overturn the landmark decision.
The Liberals have also used the opportunity to point fingers at their rival Conservatives, accusing them of wanting to undermine abortion access in Canada, where there is broad public support for the right to choose.
“We will stand up and ensure that women’s rights are always protected in this country,” Trudeau told reporters Wednesday.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced C$3.5 million for projects by two nonprofit organizations that will help remove barriers to abortion access and provide accurate information about reproductive health. The funding is a small fraction of the C$45 million promised in last year’s budget to improve access to abortion services, the majority of which has not been allocated or released.
“The legal debate over the right to abortion is closed in this country but that doesn’t mean that the fight is over,” Duclos said. “Access, that is where our efforts should be focused.”
Duclos said the timing of the announcement was not linked to the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion, but he has fielded questions in the past week about his government’s progress on abortion access. The Liberals made a number of promises on reproductive rights during the 2021 federal election, including a pledge to update the Canada Health Act to more clearly require the provinces to provide publicly funded abortions. Little progress has been made to date.
Under scrutiny, the Liberals have been deflecting attention toward the opposition Conservative party, whose caucus includes a substantial number of anti-abortion MPs. Balancing that reality against the overwhelming support in Canada for a person’s right to choose (80 percent, according to one recent poll) has proven a challenge for the Conservatives and a vulnerability the Liberals are keen to exploit.
Wednesday’s announcement came just hours before the first official debate of the Conservative leadership race, during which abortion could be a stumbling block. The party says it will not introduce legislation to restrict access, and only one of the leadership candidates is avowedly anti-abortion. But frontrunner Pierre Poilievre has not declared his personal views since the Roe v. Wade draft opinion. Former leader Andrew Scheer’s 2019 election campaign hit a major headwind after he revealed he was personally anti-abortion.
“If the Conservatives want to talk about these things, I think it would be a very good idea for Canadians to know where their perspectives are,” Trudeau said Wednesday.
The Supreme Court draft opinion has also raised questions in Canada about whether the right to abortion should be enshrined in law in this country, and Trudeau said Wednesday that option is on the table. Abortions were decriminalized in Canada following a 1988 Supreme Court decision, but no legislation regarding abortion has ever passed, and political parties have largely been keen to avoid reopening the debate. There are no legal restrictions on abortion in Canada, though access varies across the country.
“I’m not ruling anything out,” Trudeau told reporters. Some experts believe legislating on abortion is a good idea, he said, while others say it isn’t necessary.
On Thursday, thousands are expected on Parliament Hill as part of the annual March for Life rally, organized by anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition. Jack Fonseca, the group’s director of political operations, told reporters the overturning of Roe v. Wade will be “a fulcrum, a tipping point” that will eventually lead to a ban on abortion in Canada. “People will be more open to the pro-life message,” he said, predicting a “dramatic culture change” on abortion rights. The group is fighting for a blanket ban on abortion in Canada, including in cases of rape.
Still, the group is only expecting about 3,000 people to attend this year’s rally, down from a record of 25,000 in years past. They attribute the decline to the pandemic.
The U.S. Supreme Court is also set to gather Thursday for the first time since last week’s disclosure, for a scheduled closed-door conference.