Ottawa needs to close the gaps on abortion services for Canadian women

It will come as a surprise to some Canadians that access to abortion services isn’t a given for all women in this country.

If they live in, say, New Brunswick, or in many rural areas, getting an abortion can be difficult. Services are concentrated in cities, so women may have to travel hundreds of kilometers to end a pregnancy.

Some provinces make abortions available in very few centres. Some have also put tight restrictions on how and where Mifegymiso, the so-called morning-after pill, can be prescribed.

The Trudeau government, which boasts of its staunch support for women’s rights, has long promised to do something about the gaps in access to abortion services. The Liberals even included promises along those lines in their re-election platform last September.

But it took the shock of the leaked decision this week from the US Supreme Court that would strike down the right to abortion in that country to jolt the government into action.

Suddenly, and perhaps all too predictably, abortion rights jumped to the top of the agenda in Canada — even though the US decision will have zero impact on the legal situation in this country.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his fellow ministers were quick to condemn the prospect of abortion rights being rolled back in the United States — as indeed they should.

But the prime minister’s words about affirming the right to abortion and related services in this country would have sounded more convincing if his government had acted on its promises in this area. Unfortunately, it has too often seemed content to use abortion as a wedge issue against Conservatives while dithering on addressing the actual problems that Canadian women face.

Well, better now than later. If it takes a crisis south of the border to get action, that isn’t the worst thing. The government now says it will soon introduce measures to improve access to abortion services. And to ensure that abortion is established as a right in this country that no future government could easily take away.

The government, promised the prime minister, will look at the “legal framework” around abortion to ensure “that not just under this government, but under any future government, the rights of women are properly protected.”

That’s important because, contrary to what many people assume, there is no clear “right” to an abortion in this country. The 1988 Supreme Court decision in the Morgentaler case decriminalized abortion, but it did not establish a positive right, at least in the opinion of most lawyers.

Despite the alarms sounded in the wake of the US Supreme Court leak, there is no serious threat to abortion services in this country. Canada is a very different country — socially, legally and politically.

But never say never. It would be useful for the government to follow through on its promise to establish stronger legal guarantees to assure women that their access to abortion won’t be taken away.

Less dramatically, but even more importantly, the government should move on tweaking regulations under the Canada Health Act to make sure that provinces provide adequate and equitable access to abortion services.

Health Canada has twice clawed back health transfer payments to New Brunswick because that province failed to pay for abortions at a clinic in Fredericton. But the amounts were tiny and it’s not clear Ottawa has the appetite for a confrontation with provinces that don’t live up to their responsibilities.

Enforcing rules on access would certainly be harder than issuing more general rhetoric about women’s rights. But it would serve Canadian women better by making sure they can actually get the services they need.

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