Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is again vowing to protect abortion rights in Canada, but the Liberals have not yet acted on several commitments made on the issue in last year’s election, such as new rules on access to the service, or provided a timeline on their implementation.
Since the bombshell Monday report that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn abortion rights, Liberal cabinet ministers have been quick to state their support for a person’s right to choose an abortion and access the health care service.
“This government will never back down on defending and promoting women’s rights in Canada and around the world,” the Prime Minister told reporters on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.
However, Mr. Trudeau and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos were unable to detail whether the government will follow through on the election promise for new regulations under the Canada Health Act to ensure abortions are accessible wherever someone lives in the country, which included an “automatic penalty” for provinces that don’t meet that standard. The government also provided no timeline for the promised rollout of an information portal on abortion rights, but said it would be soon. Similarly, the Liberals were unable to give an update on their pledge to revoke the charitable status of anti-abortion groups.
The mismatch in rhetoric and action brought charges from the NDP that Mr. Trudeau prefers to use the issue to attack Conservatives rather than act to ensure access.
“This is about access, this is about women’s lives, not about a political wedge,” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told the Prime Minister in Question Period on Wednesday.
Mr. Duclos suggested that the government doesn’t need to act on the promise for new regulations under the Canada Health Act because it duplicates rules that already exist.
“These enforcement mechanisms are already there,” the Health Minister told reporters outside the House of Commons. He added that “there is more to do,” but did not provide specifics.
Neither Mr. Duclos nor Mr. Trudeau answered reporter questions about whether penalties for provinces that don’t provide adequate abortion access should be more severe.
Currently, if a province forces a patient to pay for a health care service that should have been publicly funded, the federal government deducts the equal amount from the province’s federal health transfer. The relatively small losses for the provincial government are not enough to change behaviour and broaden abortion access, critics say. For example, this year New Brunswick was docked $64,850 of its $934,000,000 health transfer for its refusal to cover surgical abortions outside of a hospital.
NDP health critic Don Davies called the penalty a “pitiful amount” that has not led to a change in provincial policy. He said the federal government should “up the ante” if it wants to ensure access is provided.
Eight months after the federal election, the Liberals also have not yet funded a promise to spend up to $10-million to create an information portal with “accurate, judgement-free, and evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.” The Liberal platform showed the money would be spent this year, but it is not mentioned in the April budget.
On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s spokesperson Adrienne Vaupshas did not provide a timeline for its implementation. Similarly, Ms. Vaupshas provided no update on the Liberal campaign promise to cut off the charitable status of anti-abortion groups that provide “dishonest counselling” about the options available to women.
“Budget 2022 is the first of four budgets in our current mandate and we will continue to build on our commitments, including those to protect women’s reproductive rights,” Ms. Vaupshas said.
At a Wednesday news conference, Mr. Singh said the Liberal government has not meaningfully changed abortion access under its tenure. To show its sincerity on the issue, he said, the government should immediately make contraceptives freely available to improve access to reproductive health care. He said this provision should include the morning-after pill.
Martha Paynter, a registered nurse and abortion-care provider based in Halifax, said American news can often crowd out information about abortion access in Canada and cloud the differences in care between the two countries. Patients are often misinformed by media, care providers and peers about their rights, including where and how they can access care, she said, adding governments need to do a better job ensuring access to care and providing clear information.
Like the NDP, Ms. Paynter, author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada, suggested there should be universal access to contraception to address the inequalities between people who have private drug coverage and those who don’t. She also said more health care professionals need to be trained in abortion care to close the gaps in coverage that often disadvantage people in small towns and rural areas.
Still, she believes Canada is not seeing an erosion in rights: “Abortion access has never been as good as it is right now in Canada,” Ms. Paynter said.
The Canadian Press
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