FREDERICTON -- Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole asserted Saturday that New Brunswick women do have access to abortion services despite the fact that the provincial government won't fund such procedures at a clinic in its capital city.

Speaking at a campaign stop outside Fredericton's Clinic 554 -- the facility at the centre of a simmering fight between the federal Liberal government and the province -- O'Toole said he's received assurances from Premier Blaine Higgs that women living in the province can access abortion services now and into the future.

Before calling the election set for Sept. 20, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau opted to hold back about $140,000 of New Brunswick's allotted federal health transfer money, slamming the province for not funding abortion services at the Fredericton clinic and saying it was making it difficult to access such procedures.

The province prohibits funding for abortions outside of three approved hospitals located in Moncton and Bathurst.

Days before the election was called, the Liberal government pledged $366,000 toward research to study abortion access in New Brunswick in hopes that would allow advocates to make the case for why a clinic is needed in the provincial capital.

O'Toole didn't answer when asked whether a Conservative government would withhold transfer payments to penalize provinces that don't fund adequate abortion services, only saying he raised the issue with Higgs, who told him there is already sufficient access.

"When I was here in New Brunswick over a month ago, I spoke to Premier Higgs about ensuring that that access is there, and he assured me it is and will be," he said on Saturday.

"This is how I will approach myself, always try and have positive relations with all the provinces, but I will always stand up for the rights of all Canadians, including women to access health services that are their right."

This is the second election where provincial funding for the clinic in Fredericton has emerged as an issue.

While campaigning for re-election in 2019, Trudeau pledged to take action over abortion access in New Brunswick, telling prospective voters he was prepared to use federal powers under the Canada Health Act to ensure the procedure was properly funded by the province.

Advocates for abortion rights have long called on the federal government to make more use of the law governing publicly funded health services to restrict health payments to provinces with limited abortion access.

Abortion has been an issue for O'Toole, who says he is personally pro-choice but whose caucus and party base include a significant chunk of anti-abortion social conservatives. He had to navigate the issue in the first week after the election was called due to his leadership campaign promise to recognize the conscience rights of doctors and nurses who object to performing or providing referrals for services that violate their beliefs.

A platform promise issued in the first week of the election campaign stated Conservatives would broadly recognize conscience rights, but O'Toole later clarified that doctors still had a duty to provide referrals for services they were not comfortable performing themselves.

O'Toole appeared to soften on another policy considered important by social conservatives on Saturday.

RightNow, an organization that opposes abortion and works to elect candidates who will advance that cause, reported during the Conservative leadership race that O'Toole told them he didn't believe funding for abortion services had a place in Canada's foreign aid.

He also backed a policy that had been in place under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper that banned Canadian foreign aid from funding abortion services.

The Liberals lifted that ban after first forming government in 2015.

Asked Saturday whether an O'Toole government would return to Harper's policy, he didn't directly answer, only saying, "What services the NGOs on the ground want to provide, that will be something that we support their efforts."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2021.