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No, For Real: Is Abortion *Actually* An Election Issue?

If you caught any of the leaders debates, you may have seen Justin Trudeau call out Erin O’Toole for his lack of support for abortion. The Libs, along with numerous reproductive rights organizations, have questioned whether the Conservative Party of Canada leader’s recent “pro-choice” proclamations are legit. On the flip side, critics of the current PM say this particular abortion conversation is a giant nothing burger, and wonder why Trudeau only wants to talk about the right to choose during election cycles. Given everything going on in Texas (where they effectively banned abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy), it’s no wonder that Canadian voters are feeling anxious (and confused) in the lead up to the election.
So, is reproductive freedom something Canadians should be concerned about? What has Trudeau done for the pro-choice cause? And might Erin O’Toole be more anti-abortion than he’s letting on? Here, everything you need to know about protecting your uterus during the 2021 federal election and beyond.

Abortion is protected in Canada. Why are we even talking about this?

It’s true that abortion was decriminalized in 1988 when the Supreme Court of Canada determined that existing laws infringed on person’s right to "life, liberty and security of person." Since then, abortion has been legal in the same way getting treatment for your ear infection is legal — it’s a publicly funded medical procedure under the federal Canada Health Act. When it comes down to practical aspects though (i.e., how and where abortion is funded and administered), it’s up to individual provinces. Hence the current patchwork situation wherein access to abortion is decent in some places (read: big cities in progressive provinces) and non-existent in others.
“Access to abortion is absolutely an election issue,” says Farrah Khan, a gender justice advocate in Toronto. “There are a lot of people in major cities with multiple healthcare options who feel very comfortable like, yeah, abortion, we got this. But in rural and remote communities that access is not happening.” Kelly Gordon, an assistant professor in feminist and political theory at McGill University, agrees that the lack of access is “troubling.” But she questions how much impact any federal leader can have given the provincial jurisdiction. 

So why is Trudeau bringing it up?

Partly because his platform includes the promise to improve abortion access by using powers under the Canada Health Act, which allow the Feds to hold back funding to provinces that failed to provide reliable access to reproductive healthcare (they have already done this in New Brunswick). And partly because it’s smart (if predictable) politics. Particularly now that the election Trudeau thought was in the bag has turned into a serious horse race.
“Using abortion as a wedge issue has been a Liberal strategy going back to the '90s when we first saw the emergence of the modern Conservative movement,” says Gordon. A wedge issue, btw, is a political or social issue that one party invokes to drive a wedge in another party’s support. Generally it’s done in a way that emphasizes the relevant threat, in this case the idea that our reproductive rights won’t or at least may not be safe under a Conservative government.

But didn’t O’Toole say he was pro-choice?

He did. Pretty much from the moment he won his party’s leadership EOT has been vocal about his personal pro-choice stance. Symbolically, this is not insignificant (previous Conservative  leaders Andrew Scheer and Stephen Harper were both anti-abortion and O’Toole’s more-centrist brand signals the possibility of a return to a more progressive brand of Conservatism). Still there is plenty of reason for side eye, starting with the fact that just five years ago O’Toole voted in favour of Bill C-225, a failed (thank fuck!) bill that would have granted legal personhood to fetuses.

Is it possible his position has evolved?

Even if we give the guy a supersized benefit of the doubt and assume that he is now pro-choice, the same can’t be said for his party. As recently as this June, 81 members (more than half) of O’Toole’s Conservatives caucus voted in favour of a bill to ban sex-selective abortion. This is scary, though maybe not as scary as it sounds, says Gordon: “The way that Canadian politics work, there is a tremendous amount of power concentrated in the executive [the PM’s office and the cabinet],” meaning there is no scenario where a band of anti-abortion MPs could go rogue and re-open the debate.
Khan says it depends which debate you’re talking about: “O’Toole may not be looking to criminalize abortion, but we need to pay attention to these smaller related issues like conscience rights.” (More on those in a sec.) “If O’Toole were really pro-choice, he could say we are a pro-choice party rather than giving his minsters free vote.” This is what Trudeau did in 2014 when he insisted that any new candidate running for the Liberals had to be and vote pro-choice. The NDP followed suit in 2014 under Thomas Mulcair.

That’s a point for Team Trudeau, right?

There are definitely progressives out there who don’t agree with Trudeau’s decision on the grounds of free speech. But given that whipping your party (i.e., forcing members to toe the line on a particular issue) is a thing in Canadian politics, it’s hard to think of a better right to drop the hammer on. So yes, JT gets pro-choice points for putting his caucus where his mouth is even if the whole feminist schtick has come to feel like a bit of a show. In fairness to Trudeau, there are worse things than having a self-proclaimed feminist as a leader representing Canada on the world stage (a self-proclaimed pussy grabber comes to mind). In fairness to the rest of us, we deserve a leader who can bring the sizzle and the steak — proclaim our rights in public and enact policy that supports them.

Has Trudeau done enough for abortion rights while he’s been in office?

Enough? Absolutely not. Notably, he has failed to fulfill his universal pharmacare promise from his first two elections, which would have helped with contraceptive funding and accessibility. But has done some things. There was the $1.4 billion tapped for women’s health in 2019, the decision to fund abortion abroad, the very public throwdown against former New Brunswick premier Blaine Higgs about the province’s refusal to fund abortions provided outside of three hospitals. Before you give JT all the flowers, remember “a lot of this is the long-time mobilization of abortion-rights activists on the ground making these things happen,” says Gordon. “But access has improved under Trudeau [including the first abortion clinic ever in PEI] and you could say that the federal Liberal government provided an opportunity structure.” Gordon adds that the whole 2014 whip thing was major: “No other Liberal leader in history has taken that strong stance.”

Sure but that was like seven years ago. Anything more recent?

On the 2021 campaign trail, Trudeau shared the Liberals’ promise to nix the charity status (and thus the funding) for pregnancy crisis centres — the anti-choice centres that traffic in misinformation and, in some provinces, outnumber abortion clinics. Trudeau has also marked $10 million for a portal that would provide information on abortion in Canada including facts and myths. “This is a big deal,” says Khan, who works regularly with survivors seeking abortions following sexual assault. “You have no idea some of the things that I hear. Like putting a vitamin C tablet in your vagina can bring on a miscarriage.”

Has O’Toole made any promises on abortion?

In the 160-page Conservative platform there is one mention of abortion, a promise not to legislate it. Which, okay sure, but it’s a little confusing (read: suspicious) since O’Toole also made a promise to doctors to protect their conscience rights, i.e., the right to refuse abortion service based on religious or moral objection, which is essentially regulating abortion access. “You can’t be pro-choice while making these promises to doctors because it goes back to the issue of access,” says Khan.
It seems like the people in O’Toole’s war room got the message because he recently amended his position, saying that medical professionals could still refuse to perform an abortion, but had to provide a referral. Which may sounds like a reasonable middle ground in an urban environment, but for women in remote and rural areas, “having that extra step of getting a referral is an additional barrier. They might be referred to a doctor who is hours away. Or a pharmacist who is also going to invoke their conscience rights,” adds Khan.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada recently released a statement saying that O’Toole’s “flip flop” on this issue “does not inspire confidence” for either side of the argument. Gordon agrees, but also believes the whole conscience rights thing is a bit of a farce. Like the free vote, she says, “It’s a way for O’Toole to play to both the social Conservaties who helped him win the leadership and the more progressive general electorate, but it’s not going to change anything."

Isn’t that what Americans thought during the Obama era? Now look at them, it’s like IRL Handmaid’s Tale in some states.

It’s true. It’s also true that there are a lot of people working behind the scenes to empower the extreme right in Canada. Just look at the recent (and terrifying) uptick for support of the People’s Party of Canada. If we play out a worse-case scenario, under O’Toole, it’s possible his party could win a majority and push the country further to the right. On abortion in particular though, there is no public will to push that change. “People in Canada look at the U.S. and worry, but there is and always has been a big difference between support for abortion in America [which has never passed 60%] and support in Canada, which is close to 80%.” 

Just to be clear then, there is no scenario in which a Conservative government could spell bad news for my uterus’ free will? 

Probably not in the criminal sense, but Khan says that abortion-rights supporters need to remain vigilant. “We know that Conservative MPs have a history of trying to limit access,” she says, so something like conscience rights could be a palatable first step to more sweeping change. As things stand now, so many Canadians — especially low-income and racialized people, people facing stigma, people fleeing abuse — have trouble accessing safe abortions. If you’re not working to improve that, Khan says, you’re not pro-choice. 

Why is nobody talking about Jagmeet Singh or Annamie Paul’s stance on abortion?

They should be. The NDP’s abortion platform includes pharmacare funding for prescription contraceptives as well as the same promises to improve access through the Canada Health Act. It absolutely belongs in the conversation, as does the Green party platform (both because they’re good on abortion and because abortion access won’t be an issue if the planet implodes). The problem is that Canada’s system forces progressive voters to choose between getting the candidate they want in versus keeping the candidate they don’t want out. Hence why most elections become two horse races between the Liberals and the Conservatives where many Canadians are voting against the candidate they don’t want rather than for the one they do. 

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