New Brunswick

Trudeau vows to 'ensure' New Brunswick funds abortions at private clinics

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau waded into New Brunswick's abortion access debate Tuesday, vowing to force the provincial government to fund the procedure in a private Fredericton clinic now on the verge of closing.

Pledge comes as Fredericton clinic announces impending closure because of lack of medicare coverage

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in Fredericton on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau waded into New Brunswick's abortion access debate Tuesday, vowing to force the provincial government to fund the procedure in a private Fredericton clinic now on the verge of closing.

Attempting to draw a contrast with his Conservative rival, Trudeau said that if he wins next week's election he will "ensure" that abortions at Clinic 554 are funded by New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government.

"We will ensure that the New Brunswick government allows access, paid-for access, to clinics that offer abortion services outside of hospitals," he said, choosing his words carefully during a campaign stop at a private home not far from the clinic.

"I will sit down with Premier [Blaine] Higgs, if re-elected, and let him know that we will use all tools at our disposal, including tools that exist under the Canada Health Act."

Last week, the clinic announced that it will soon close and the building is for sale. Its medical director blamed a financial shortfall on the province's refusal to fund abortions at the facility. The clinic also offers other services funded by medicare.

Trudeau's tough new comments on abortion dovetail with his attempts to persuade progressive voters to support his Liberals instead of the Greens or the NDP. He warned several times that splitting the progressive vote would elect a Conservative government.

"A Liberal government will always defend women's rights, including when challenged by Conservative premiers," Trudeau said. "That's something we know Andrew Scheer will not do."

But Trudeau was forced to defend his tougher tone when he was asked why he went easier on the previous provincial Liberal government of Brian Gallant.

Higgs's PC government has adopted precisely the same policy approach as Gallant did: to fund abortions in some, but not all, provincial hospitals. Three hospitals now offer the service.

Asked Tuesday why he didn't challenge Gallant on that policy, Trudeau insisted that "we did. We encouraged premier Gallant to expand access to abortion services, and there were steps made."

In fact, Gallant took those steps in fall 2014, a year before Trudeau was elected prime minister. Gallant's government repealed a regulation that required women to get approval from two doctors for a medicare-funded hospital abortion.

Reminded of that timeline, Trudeau claimed he and Gallant "had very clear conversations when I was leader," before the 2015 election that put him in power.

Clinic 554 in Fredericton is one of only four surgical abortion sites in New Brunswick and the only one in the capital. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Provincial Liberals argued that Gallant's elimination of the two-doctor rule was enough to bring the province in line with the Canada Health Act.

"Any insured service which is currently covered by medicare has to happen in a hospital," then-health minister Victor Boudreau said in November 2014. "We do not provide funding for any procedures performed in a private clinic."

That's the same position the Higgs government is taking now.

"The Province of New Brunswick's position on abortions remains unchanged from that of the previous government," said spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane in a statement.

"Abortions are available in publicly-funded hospitals in New Brunswick. The Government of New Brunswick does not fund private health-care services."

It would have been nice to see during the Gallant [Liberal] government as well.- Jenica Atwin, Fredericton Green Party candidate

Abortions funded by medicare are now provided at three hospitals in New Brunswick: two in Moncton —  the Moncton Hospital and the Dr. Georges-L.-Dumont University Hospital Centre — and the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst.

Women who can't travel to those hospitals, who have passed the gestational limit of 13 weeks and six days for a medicare-funded hospital abortion, or who go to Clinic 554 for other reasons, must pay up to $850 for the procedure. The clinic performs abortions up to 16 weeks.

Act stipulates 'reasonable' access

In July, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, a New Brunswick MP, said in a letter to her provincial counterparts that refusing to fund abortions in clinics violated the Canada Health Act.

But successive provincial Liberal and PC governments have argued the act does not give Ottawa the power to dictate exactly how or where abortion services are offered.

The legislation says there must be "reasonable" access to publicly-funded services, without financial or other barriers.

"The Canada Health Act doesn't say where you must do it," said Dr. Russ King, a former provincial Liberal health minister who attended Trudeau's campaign event. "It supports the fact that there should be certain services.

"Provinces have always had the ability, in my opinion, to determine what were necessary services and what weren't. The provinces made those choices."

The Fredericton clinic was opened in 1994 by Dr. Henry Morgentaler. It closed in 2014 and reopened the following year under new management. In addition to abortions, the clinic offers family medicine services with a focus on transgender and LGBTQ care.

'Times have changed'

King, who was health minister in the Frank McKenna government that opposed the clinic's opening, said "times have changed," and he now believes a private clinic has a role in offering abortion services if demographics require it.

"If we need it and the public [system] doesn't provide it, I think as long as it comes up to a certain standard, they should be supported."

Last week, federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May joined a Fredericton rally to support the clinic and challenged other federal leaders to take a position on the issue.

In the French-language leaders' debate last Thursday night, Trudeau said he was "concerned by the decision of the [Progressive] Conservative government in New Brunswick, which is taking a step backwards for women's rights."

But Tuesday's promise to "ensure" clinic abortions were funded by medicare represented a firmer commitment.

About 150 people rallied outside the health minister's office in Fredericton last Friday in support of Clinic 554. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Fredericton Green Party candidate Jenica Atwin welcomed Trudeau's tougher line but wondered why he hadn't adopted it when Gallant was premier.

"It is interesting that he hasn't brought it up before, but support is support," she said. "I want to see Clinic 554 stay open ... so I appreciate that he's now stepping forward. It would have been nice to see during the Gallant government as well."

She brushed off Trudeau's claim that a vote for other left-of-centre parties would split the vote and let the Conservatives win.

She said progressive voters disappointed by the federal Liberals know from provincial Green victories in Fredericton that they're not wasting their vote if they support her.

"Now, they're willing to bet on a horse that they know is going to come through on those promises."

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