OTTAWA — As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decries American states for "backsliding" on abortion rights, the Liberal party is using abortion to galvanize its base and help fill its war chest for the upcoming federal election.
The Liberals issued a fundraising email blast Thursday, raising "alarm" about 12 Conservative MPs who went to an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill last week. The email directed supporters to websites for the 12 Liberal riding associations working to unseat the Conservative MPs, whom the party accuses of trying to reopen the abortion debate in Canada.
"While these Conservative MPs have been busy working to roll back women's rights, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal team are focused on making real progress for women and all Canadians," the fundraising email says. "Chip in now to support Justin Trudeau and our the Liberal team to help earn another mandate this fall."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has repeatedly pledged not to reopen the abortion debate in Canada — most recently at the party's policy convention in Halifax last year, where party members narrowly defeated a resolution that proposed to remove any reference to regulating abortion from the party's official policy. In power under prime minister Stephen Harper, the Conservatives did nothing to restrict abortion, despite some efforts by backbenchers to get them to.
The debate about abortion rights has abruptly flared south of the border, thanks to several U.S. states' moves to restrict women's access to abortion services.
On Thursday, Missouri became the latest in a string of Republican-led state governments to pass new abortion restrictions, outlawing abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.
On Wednesday, Alabama passed an almost total ban, making virtually all abortions illegal even in cases of rape or incest. Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio have also passed so-called "heartbeat bills," which effectively ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The laws are likely bound eventually for the U.S. Supreme Court, where a new conservative majority might be inclined to overturn or drastically diminish the court's landmark abortion-rights precedent set in the Roe v. Wade case in 1973.
Trudeau told reporters in France Thursday he is "deeply disappointed" in these U.S. developments, which he characterized as "backsliding on women's rights."
"We very much regret what is happening, particularly in the United States, where they are moving backwards in terms of defending a women's right to choose," he said.
"As a government, as Canadians, we will always be unequivocal about defending a woman's right to choose, defending women's rights in general."
Trudeau then quickly pivoted, aiming his fire at his domestic Conservative rivals, accusing them of ramping up their efforts at "taking away rights that have been hard-fought over many, many years by generations of women and male allies."
The Liberals have been making a concerted effort over the last week to make political hay over their stance on reproductive rights and how Liberals differ from Conservatives on the issue. The party clearly views this as a motivator for its base, with Trudeau as chief "ally and defender," as he stated in his own comments to media Thursday.
The Liberal party has launched a social-media campaign, asking people to share an image with the slogan "Proudly pro-choice" and asking supporters to enter their names and contact information as a way to help Liberals take a stand for women's rights "regardless of what the Conservatives think or say."
The party's fundraising email also contains whole sections of text also in a letter sent by Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef on Wednesday evening to the 12 Conservative MPs who attended the anti-abortion rally in Ottawa last week.
In the letter, Monsef calls on Scheer to defend Canadian women's access to reproductive health services and to work with the Liberal government to protect legal abortion in Canada and across the world.
"Canadians — and Canadian women in particular — deserve to know whether or not the Conservative Party of Canada would take us backwards by restricting or undermining a woman's right to choose," Monsef says in her letter.
Scheer's press secretary Brock Harrison said Thursday Monsef's letter to Conservatives is a show of "desperation as the election gets closer."
"As they know, Mr. Scheer will not reopen this debate as prime minister and will instead focus on issues that unite Canadians."
Advocates on the front lines who have been fighting for women's reproductive rights in Canada have mixed reactions to the use of abortion access as a political strategy.
Joyce Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada applauded Trudeau and the Liberals for taking a strong stand against politicians who support movements that seek to erode reproductive rights for women in Canada.
"I think it's fantastic. I don't think it's ever happened before — I've never seen that kind of strategy before and I'm just so glad to see it, because it's so inappropriate for these anti-choice MPs to be going to these marches, and often many of them are speaking at them as well," she said.
"It's just so wrong and they've been doing this for many years... the leaders of the Conservative party should be limiting that activity and I'm glad to see the Liberals are also trying to call them out for it."
But Ottawa-based women's-rights advocate Julie Lalonde says she would rather see the Liberals create better, more equitable access to reproductive justice for Canadian women than use abortion as an issue to score political points.
"This is the same government that didn't hold New Brunswick or P.E.I. to account over their lack of (abortion) access and is now saying, 'How dare Andrew Scheer allow his MPs to attend a march?' " Lalonde said.
"It's a bad look to go to an anti-choice rally, absolutely. But it's also a bad look to call yourself a pro-choice government and not fill these gaps that are really easy to fix and are having a huge impact on people's lives by not being addressed."
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Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press