At a recent press conference, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs was asked if more hospitals in the province would start to offer abortions. “That’s a good question. And it isn’t one that I will answer,” Higgs responded.
It’s a typical response from the Progressive Conservative leader. He’s spent much of this election campaign promising to maintain the status quo when it comes to abortion access in New Brunswick, which means no funding for any services performed outside of a hospital setting.
Though medical abortions are available across the country, in New Brunswick they are offered at three hospitals, in two cities (Moncton and Bathurst). The only clinic that offers abortion, Clinic 554 in Fredericton, is in danger of closing, because the abortions they provide are not covered by the province. Canada’s Ministry of Health has criticized Higgs for not funding outside clinics, which it says is a violation of the Canada Health Act because it does not meet the act’s “accessibility and comprehensiveness criteria.”
Higgs disagrees, maintaining that the province is meeting its requirements. This spring, Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu withheld $140,000 in transfer payments to New Brunswick as a penalty. (The funds have been temporarily reinstated because of COVID-19.)
Other provinces have similar barriers. People in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan might have a tough time getting south to cities that offer the service. High costs can deter someone in British Columbia without coverage. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there are two centres, and in P.E.I., only one. So though New Brunswick may seem average in access points, that’s because it’s not a high bar to clear.
That might change when people in New Brunswick go to the polls on Monday to elect a leader. Higgs’ main opponents have said they would repeal the regulation, fund Clinic 554, and widen access to abortion in the province.
“In the 90s, we had 10 hospitals in the province that performed abortions, and now we have hospitals in two different cities,” said Caitlin Grogan, the NDP candidate running directly opposing Higgs in Quispamsis.
Grogan was prompted to run in part because of the “erosion” of abortion access in the province. “Where I live, I’d have to drive about an hour and a half to get to Clinic 554 in Fredericton, and that would be my nearest option. And even then I’d have to pay $800 out of pocket,” she said. “It’s telling that some folks thought you could just drive down the road to the hospital and get a procedure done there.”
VICE News reached out to Higgs for comment, but he did not respond.
Abortion isn’t an election issue just in New Brunswick. Supporting or opposing abortion can still get candidates on the ballot, or ensure they win their seat, at nearly every level of politics across the country.
It’s a line that especially conservative politicians work hard to walk: they need to appeal to a social conservative base to get elected, but not lose the larger, often more liberal constituency once they have the seat.
Erin O’Toole, the newly elected leader of the federal Conservative Party, walked that line during the Conservative leadership campaign, and abortion was used as a litmus test, said Kelly Gordon, a political science professor at McGill University.
“The first question that he gets asked is, ‘Are you pro-choice?’ So it’s important for the Canadian public, and a way to evaluate the social conservatism of conservative politicians,” Gordon said.
According to O’Toole’s office, “Mr. O’Toole ran and won the leadership of the Conservative Party as a pro-choice MP and is in politics to defend the rights of all Canadians,” O’Toole’s communications director said in an email statement to VICE News. “He has a clear track record on standing up for human rights, including women’s rights.”
While O’Toole has publicly said he is pro-choice, he has also said he wouldn’t expect his MPs to automatically vote with him on “moral issues.”
“Free speech is a really important issue for the Conservative Party. So Erin O’Toole can’t come out and say, ‘I’m not going to let my colleagues vote their conscience,’” Gordon said.
As for how much support O’Toole might give New Brunswick, the communications director punted the issue to the provinces. “Health care delivery is a provincial responsibility,” they said.
Some polls show that about 70 per cent of Canadians support abortion, but as groups like the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada note, politicians are often more conservative than their constituents. That’s partly because of groups like Right Now or Campaign Life Coalition, which seek out and support anti-abortion candidates running at all levels, from the federal leaders to city council and school board trustees.
Jack Fonseca, a representative of Campaign Life Coalition, told VICE News the down-ballot elections are often more important to these groups, as “it’s actually at the local levels where meaningful changes to increase respect for, and defence of, innocent human life can be more readily implemented.” Fonseca also noted that Campaign Life Coalition looks to local elections as an early predictor of who might rise through the ranks and go on to hold higher office.
Campaign Life Coalition and other social conservative movements are also undeterred by the idea that they might be a political minority. They remain committed to pushing politicians to take a hard line stance on abortion, counting on an anti-abortion voting bloc with higher representation in rural areas. (Fonseca said the strongest anti-choice support is in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with Quebec the least likely to endorse the message.)
That means politicians like Higgs will continue to stick to a seemingly safe political path: not restricting abortion services outright, but also refusing to expand them. But that path could lead to a courtroom, like when activists successfully sued the province of Prince Edward Island into expanding abortion access.
Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, said if Higgs’ PCs win a majority, there may be no other choice. “The conservatives in New Brunswick are so dug in on their position. They’re an anti-choice government, and they are never going to budge. They’re basically forcing people to sue for their rights and necessary health care.”
When New Brunswickers hit the polls on Monday, it’s likely that the Progressive Conservatives will win a slight majority over the Liberals. And whether Higgs answers the questions or not, abortion access will still play a major factor in how people will vote.
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