By Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to defend abortion rights in Canada and around the world after what he calls a “devastating setback” in the United States.
He and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly reacted Friday to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its 50-year-old Roe v. Wade ruling that had guaranteed countrywide access to abortion.
“It shows how much standing up and fighting for rights matters every day, that we can’t take anything for granted, that we need to continue to stand strong and defend everybody’s rights and freedoms,” said Trudeau, speaking in Kigali, Rwanda, where he and the minister are attending a Commonwealth summit.
He said his government will defend abortion access in Canada and internationally, including by fighting for women’s rights in Africa and supporting people fighting for their rights in the United States.
Joly called it a “dark day.”
“It’s a reversal of hard-fought gains by generations of women and this decision will put women’s lives at risk and it has a domino effect on other rights,” she said.
She added no country in the world is immune to what is going on in the United States, noting that a majority of Conservatives voted in favour of a private member’s bill last year to outlaw so-called sex-selective abortions. The bill was defeated.
Joly also accused Conservative leadership candidates of “shopping for anti-abortion votes.”
The Liberals will work across the government to ensure that women across Canada and the world have access to sexual and reproductive health services, she said.
Candice Bergen, the Conservative party’s interim leader, accused the Liberals of politicizing the abortion issue to create division among Canadians.
She said in a statement that her party’s position on abortion has not changed and the Conservatives “will not introduce legislation or reopen the abortion debate.”
Leslyn Lewis, a candidate in the party’s leadership race who describes herself as “pro-life,” tweeted Friday that “Canada is not the U.S.” and she expects Canadians to be able to have adult conversations about the topic.
She said her position is that coercive and sex-selective abortions are wrong, and a Conservative party under her leadership would allow free votes for issues of conscience in the House of Commons.
The Campaign Life Coalition, which holds an annual anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill that attracts thousands and has supported Lewis’s candidacy, put out a statement praising the court: “We thank God and heartily applaud this decision.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement Friday morning that the court had “walked back women’s rights” by effectively making abortion illegal in many states.
“These dangerous policies that threaten women’s health and women’s lives must not be allowed to take root in Canada,” the statement reads, with Singh demanding that Liberals work to improve abortion access for women in rural communities.
The right to an abortion doesn’t exist in Canada in the same way it was enshrined in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that had served as a rock-ribbed legal scaffold for reproductive rights champions around the world for nearly half a century.
Abortion is decriminalized in Canada because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, but no bill has ever been passed to enshrine access into law and it’s also not considered a constitutionally protected right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Though the decision is sending “shock waves” across the world, the legal ability to have an abortion in Canada is not under threat, said Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
But her organization is concerned about Americans coming north for abortion care and is advocating for federal and provincial governments to help clinics with more funding because, as Arthur puts it, “even a small number of Americans can overwhelm our system.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is “deeply troubled” by the decision and the laws that state legislators may be emboldened to pass in its wake, one of its directors, Cara Zwibel, said in a statement.
She noted that while most Canadians have access to abortion services through provincial health care, that is not true in New Brunswick, where abortion services have been restricted to three hospitals in two cities — a state of affairs that led the CCLA to file a case against the N.B. government that is making its way through courts.
Canadian politicians were sounding off on Twitter throughout the morning Friday in the wake of the news, though Conservatives were largely mum.
Official Languages Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor called it “horrible news” as others from the Liberal caucus lent their voices to the chorus: Sonia Sidhu labelled it a “monumental setback”; Gary Anandasangaree saying he is “devastated”; Peter Fragiskatos said he stands in solidarity with the women who look at this decision with “shock and fear”; Julie Dabrusin said it is all “too close to home.”
Another Liberal MP, Iqra Khalid, summed it up this way: “Decades of progress — overturned with the stroke of a bloody pen.”
Former minister Catherine McKenna said on Twitter she is “flipping furious” and women should not be complacent about their rights, while ex-minister Bernadette Jordan wrote: “We all could see it coming, that doesn’t make it any less devastating.”
The NDP’s foreign affairs critic, Heather McPherson, tweeted attacks on reproductive rights are “abhorrent” and the party’s women and gender equality critic Leah Gazan says women south of the border will be forced “back into the dark ages of back lane abortions,” adding: “Keep your hands off our uteruses!”
Sen. Paula Simons chimed in, saying Canadians should not take their rights for granted, and Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier and Canada’s current ambassador to the United Nations, called the decision “another setback for human rights, women and the rule of law,” warning that it would have a negative impact beyond the borders of the U.S.