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People hold signs as they stand in front of the U.S. consulate during a protest after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dobbs v. Women's Health Organization abortion case, overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, in Toronto on June 29, 2022.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Abortion rights advocacy groups are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to defend reproductive rights in Canada by denying anti-abortion groups funding and revoking their charity status.

Dozens of crisis pregnancy centres and other anti-abortion groups received federal COVID-19 relief funds and continue to have tax exempt charity status. Mr. Trudeau has been highly critical of crisis pregnancy centres and has promised to revoke their charity status.

Crisis pregnancy centres, which are often affiliated with Christian churches, are known for discouraging abortion and spreading disinformation about pregnancy termination, including false claims that it increases the risk of cancer and harms future fertility. There are more crisis pregnancy centres in Canada than abortion clinics, meaning that in many communities, particularly remote or rural areas, they are the only service available to people dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.

An online database shows that at least 28 crisis pregnancy centres received federal money under the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), a program that provided wage support to employers affected by the pandemic. At least five anti-abortion advocacy groups also received CEWS funds. One group, Campaign Life Coalition, celebrated the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade by saying it’s “only a matter of time” before similar restrictions are enacted here.

The fact anti-abortion groups recently received federal funding through the CEWS program and, in the case of crisis pregnancy centres, operate as charities, is a serious problem that needs urgent attention, said Martha Paynter, a registered nurse and expert in abortion care.

“We have this rhetoric, this feminist rhetoric from Trudeau, and yet this continues to happen,” said Ms. Paynter, author of the recently published book Abortion to Abolition. “Stop with your rhetoric and make some changes. This is completely unethical that this persists.”

Last month, in response to the Supreme Court decision, Mr. Trudeau said “in Canada, we will always defend women’s rights to choose and continue to work to expand access to the full range of reproductive health services across the country.”

A spokesperson for Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland did not respond to questions about why anti-abortion groups received CEWS funding and continued to have charity status. In an e-mail, Jessica Eritou said the government is “fully committed” to removing the charity status to anti-abortion organizations that provide dishonest counselling to women.

The 2021 Liberal election platform included a promise to no longer provide charity status to anti-abortion organizations, like crisis pregnancy centres, “that provide dishonest counseling to women about their rights and about the options available to them at all stages of the pregnancy.”

Abortion rights advocacy groups say crisis pregnancy centres are particularly harmful because they often target low-income and other vulnerable women who go there to access free resources, such as pregnancy tests, diapers, and infant clothes, and the promise of non-judgmental counselling.

“They pose as legitimate social or health services,” said Frédérique Chabot, director of health promotion with Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. “But truly, they have a goal in mind, which is to convince people or to prevent people from accessing abortion.”

For instance, the website of the Valley Care Pregnancy Centre, a Christian crisis pregnancy centre in Nova Scotia, says it offers tools and support to help those with an unplanned pregnancy make an informed decision. But the site also makes a series of false claims about abortion, incorrectly suggesting that it’s linked to suicide, cancer and other serious health outcomes.

The clinic did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Paynter said continuing to grant crisis pregnancy centres charity status allows them to fundraise and advertise their services, meaning they are often among the top online search results that appear when people look for unplanned pregnancy resources.

But legitimate abortion clinics typically have no money for advertising, meaning it can be a challenge for some women to find those services.

“Even though they absolutely should, governments have not made it a priority for how to get to an abortion clinic,” Ms. Paynter said.

The rise of medication-based abortions, which can be managed by primary care providers, has helped improve access, Ms. Paynter said, but more work needs to be done.

It’s unclear how much federal funding anti-abortion groups have received under the CEWS and other programs in recent years. But the fact crisis pregnancy centres are still afforded charity status allows them to fundraise and offer their services to unsuspecting individuals, said.

“I think it’s really troubling on a number of different levels,” said Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. “These groups are working to take away peoples’ human rights by spreading dangerous misinformation.”

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