Abortion is legal. Why is it still an election issue?

Abortion has been legal in Canada for decades, but the issue resurfaces every federal election. CBC News spoke to experts to break down why it comes up and whether it’s still relevant for voters.

All the main federal party leaders are pro-choice, but access remains a concern

A protester holds a pro-choice sign at Victoria Park in Halifax during a 2014 demonstration for access to abortion services. Canadians emailed CBC News to ask why abortion still comes up during federal election campaigns. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

This story idea came from an audience member, like you, who got in touch with us. Send us your federal election questions and story tips. We are listening: ask@cbc.ca.

Each of the main federal party leaders has expressed a pro-choice position, but abortion still emerged as an election issue on the campaign trail this summer.

Some Canadians emailed CBC News asking why it's a talking point, rather than what they view as more relevant issues, such as climate change, the opioid crisis, and reconciliation.

Abortion has been legal in Canada for more than three decades, but the issue seems to resurface every federal election. We talked to experts to find out why.

How has this 'wedge issue' evolved?

After a 1988 Supreme Court ruling struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional, the procedure was decriminalized. 

Two years later, Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government introduced a bill that banned abortion except in cases where a doctor said the pregnancy would be a health risk. The bill was passed in the House of Commons but failed in the Senate.

Since then, no government has reopened the debate. But the fact that abortion is legal doesn't mean it's accessible for everyone.

FROM THE ARCHIVES | Canada's abortion law is ruled unconstitutional :

Abortion law ruled unconstitutional

35 years ago
Duration 2:59
Dr. Henry Morgentaler celebrates the Supreme Court of Canada striking down the abortion law.

"Because the accessibility issue isn't really resolved, I think it keeps coming up," said Lori Turnbull, a political science professor and director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University.

"It becomes a wedge issue between the Liberals and Conservatives," Turnbull continued. "It can create fear if people think that the Conservative leader, if prime minister, would not protect access to abortion."

How did it come up in this election?

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said he is pro-choice and that a government led by him would make sure abortion services are available nationwide. 

But some Liberal candidates raised questions about a promise in the Conservative platform to protect the "conscience rights" of health-care professionals who object to some procedures.

Liberal questions like this are a "dog whistle," said Alise Mills, a Conservative strategist and senior associate at Sussex Strategy Group.

Mills said it has always been the case that "we don't force professionals to perform services that they don't align with ideologically or religiously." 

"We are not underserved... in regards to doctors that will perform abortions," Mills said. "But we are underserved geographically."

So, why was this section on "conscience rights" included in the Conservatives' platform?

Turnbull said it's "a callout to the social conservative part of the party who want to see that there."

WATCH | Lori Turnbull on abortion and the Conservative Party:

How abortion exposes divisions within the Conservative Party

11 months ago
Duration 1:13
Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, explains how the topic of abortion arises during federal election campaigns as a way to expose divisions within the Conservative Party.

Kelly Gordon, a political science professor at McGill University, said the Conservative leader is dealing with divisions within the party and the reality of public support for abortion.

"Erin O'Toole has to balance a socially conservative base, many of which are anti-abortion, and a larger Canadian public who are largely pro-choice," said Gordon, whose research has focused on conservative politics and anti-abortion discourse in Canada.

The other main federal parties have expressed support for abortion in their election platforms.

The NDP's platform states the party will "enforce the Canada Health Act to make sure that the provinces make medical and surgical abortion available in all parts of the country, without barriers."

The Green Party's platform says they will "oppose any possible government move to diminish access to safe, legal abortion" and "negotiate the Canada Health Accord to prioritize... access to safe abortion services."

The Bloc Québécois platform includes a statement that the party defends the right of women to control their own bodies.

Is abortion access constitutionally protected?

Canada's former abortion law was struck down for violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but the 1988 ruling didn't create a right to abortion.

"That said, the Charter contains provisions that can reasonably be interpreted as protecting a right to abortion access," said political scientist Rachael Johnstone, a professor at Dalhousie University and author of After Morgentaler: The Politics of Abortion in Canada.

The question of a right to access has not yet been put before the Supreme Court, but Johnstone said recriminalizing abortion is not what's at risk. 

"I do not believe such a law would be able to withstand Charter scrutiny," Johnstone said. "The slow chipping away of access is a more pressing concern."

  • Use Vote Compass to compare the party platforms with your views.

Criminal law is federal in Canada, rather than state-based like in the U.S. "So a Texas-style event is not going to happen here," Turnbull said.

But health care is not federal, which leaves access to abortion under provincial jurisdiction. 

Provinces decide where people can access abortion and what services are publicly funded through provincial health-care plans.

Can the federal government do anything about access?

The federal government can put pressure on provinces to fund abortion services by withholding transfer payments.

Trudeau did this in New Brunswick, where $140,216 was withheld this year to try to impel the province to ensure provincial funding for Clinic 554 in Fredericton.

But that hasn't changed Premier Blaine Higgs' position. He said the province already meets the requirements for access under the Canada Health Act by providing abortion services in three hospitals.

O'Toole has said he would leave it up to the New Brunswick government to decide how to provide and fund abortion services if he becomes prime minister.

Do you have a question about the federal election? Send it to ask@cbc.ca or leave it in the comments. We're answering as many as we can leading up to election day. You can read our answers to other election-related questions here.



Avneet Dhillon is a multi-platform journalist with CBC News based in Toronto.

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