New Manitoba health minister not responsible for reproductive health, despite holding purse strings

Manitoba's Department of Health may be in charge of the funding, but the Progressive Conservative government has decided talking about reproductive health care — including abortion — remains a women's issue.

Past PC health ministers deferred all questions about abortion to minister for status of women

Heather Stefanson is the first female health minister under the current Progressive Conservative government. Her office confirms that questions about reproductive health care will continue to be referred to the minister for the status of women, although that department is not in control of reproductive health-care funding. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Manitoba's Department of Health may be in charge of the funding, but the Progressive Conservative government has decided talking about reproductive health — including abortion — remains a women's issue.

The office for newly appointed Health Minister Heather Stefanson confirmed she'll continue the PC government's practice of sending questions about reproductive health care to the minister for the status of women.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense. It's also not really transparent in terms of decision making," said Kemlin Nembhard, interim executive director of Winnipeg's Women's Health Clinic.

Her organization is funded by the province to provide services like low-cost birth control, Pap smears, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and abortions.

Nembhard said it's confusing for an organization like hers, which wants to advocate for things like better abortion access, but is told needs to go through a minister who has no control over the clinic's funding.

"We would be talking to the Status of Women [minister], and yet they wouldn't be providing the funding for us. Or we would be talking to the health minister, but they're completely disconnected from it. So that's a problem."

Nembhard said her organization hopes the new Health minister will take back the responsibility for reproductive health care, calling the government's current policy sexist.

Kemlin Nembhard with the Women's Health Clinic says health-care providers want to talk to the government about abortion access, but have a confusing process of going through a different minister who doesn't control their funding. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Medical student and abortion-rights advocate Lucy Karp says the government is sending the wrong message by separating reproductive health from the Health Department.

"Reproductive health is an essential part of health," Karp said.

"To pigeonhole reproductive health as a women's issue ... ignores all the other elements of health— STI testing, Pap smears, safe sex—  those impact everyone, as does abortion. It's not just a women's issue," she said.

"To place such an essential part of all human health as a women's issue I think is shocking, frankly."

Lucy Karp is the former president for Manitoba Medical Students for Choice. She says putting reproductive health under the status of women sends the wrong message that it's not a healthcare issue. (Submitted by Lucy Karp)

History of avoiding abortion questions

The PC party's health ministers have a history of staying away from reproductive health conversations.

As the former president of Manitoba Medical Students for Choice, Karp spent months in 2019 trying to speak with then-health minister Cameron Friesen about the abortion pill. 

The Manitoba government was under fire for being one of the last provinces refusing to pay for the pill, Mifegymiso, in its provincial health plan.

Friesen consistently refused to answer questions from reporters too, saying in March 2019, "I assure you I've got plenty on my plate."

His predecessor in the Health portfolio, Kelvin Goertzen, was criticized in 2018 for speaking at an anti-abortion rally in Steinbach.

Uzoma Asagwara, the NDP's health critic, alleges that removing reproductive health care from oversight of the health minister was a decision made for ideological reasons. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The province's Opposition health critic, Uzoma Asagwara, alleges the decision to remove reproductive health from the purview of the health minister was made because the governing PCs don't want to talk about abortion.

"They didn't want to recognize that access to abortion is access to health care," the NDP MLA said.

"Regardless of your ideological beliefs, regardless of what your religious beliefs may be, regardless of your gender ... there are conversations that you have to be willing to have."

Asagwara said the decision also causes extra complications in the health-care system that don't need to be there.

"Health-care providers have to direct their line of questioning to an entirely different minister than they would for any other of their health needs.… Why would somebody have to now deal with an entirely different minister for something that is a part of their overall health?" they said.

"All that does is jeopardize the health care of folks who need it."

3 women in charge of health care: spokesperson

CBC made multiple requests to the health minister for an interview about reproductive health, but Heather Stefanson's office declined, saying she wasn't available.

Spokesperson Brant Batters pointed to the recent appointment of Stefanson and of Audrey Gordon as minister of mental health, and Cathy Cox's continuing role as the minister for the status of women.

"Our government takes women's health care very seriously, which is why we now have three women responsible for the many facets of women's health, including reproductive health, in Manitoba," Batters wrote in an email to CBC News.

"These women bring a wealth of experience and diverse backgrounds to their respective roles, and they work together as a team when it comes to women's health."

New health minister still won't handle women's reproductive health

2 years ago
Duration 2:33
Despite the appointment of a woman, Heather Stefanson, as minister of health, Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government still won't include reproductive health under that portfolio. Instead, it will remain under the minister for the status of women.


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter currently working for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.