Opinion-Policy Nexus

Abortion law is once again a front-burner issue in American politics as that country steels itself for election year 2020.

No fewer than 300 bills to ban or restrict a woman’s access to legal abortion have been introduced in 36 states, and a dozen states have passed one – most notably Alabama where the governor, a woman, has signed into law a new measure that carries a 99-year prison term for doctors who perform abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

President Donald Trump, who previously claimed to support a women’s right to choose, has read the public mood. In tweets a few days ago, he identified himself as pro-life, although not as extreme as the lawmakers of Alabama.

The blizzard of new state bills will not, of itself, undo Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion-rights ruling, but it is setting the stage for a concerted Supreme Court challenge now that Trump has tilted the court’s balance by appointing conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Does this matter in Canada? I think it does.

We are one of a relative handful of countries that has no law against abortion. The old Criminal Code provision was ruled unconstitutional – because it violated the “security of the person” guarantee in Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – in the Supreme Court’s 1988 Morgentaler decision. An attempt by Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government to recriminalize abortion failed in 1990.

We forget how frantic it was on Parliament Hill in 1988-1990 and how desperately close the outcome was. Bill C-43, introduced by Mulroney’s justice minister, Kim Campbell, passed the Commons by a mere nine votes. It failed in the Senate on a tie vote – the tying vote being cast by Conservative Senator Pat Carney who, in a demonstration of political courage, got off her sick bed in Vancouver, flew to Ottawa and defied her party leadership by voting to uphold the right to choose.

The Morgentaler decision and Carney’s vote did not end controversy over abortion. The pro-life or anti-abortion movement is alive and well. It has already signalled its presence in the October election campaign.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized American states for “backsliding” on abortion rights, and the Liberal party sent out an internet appeal for funds that denounced the presence of 12 Conservative MPs at an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill last week.

Interestingly, an early draft of the Liberal email singled out Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. It said: “Women’s rights are human rights, and we need to send a message that no one –including Andrew Scheer or any member of his caucus – has the authority to dictate to women what they can and cannot do with their bodies.”

Although the reference to Scheer was deleted from the email, the Conservative leader tried to allay suspicion that he is vulnerable to pressure by reiterating that if he wins in October, his government would not reopen the abortion debate.

His Conservative comrade-in-arms, Ontario Premier Doug Ford – who once wondered publicly why teenagers require parental consent for school trips but not for abortions – didn’t do his federal colleague any favours. Following an anti-abortion rally at Queen’s Park, the premier ducked questions in the Legislature about his view of abortion.

Later the same day, however, he emerged to declare that he, too, would not be reopening the abortion issue.

Not that it is his, or Ontario’s, to reopen. Abortion is a federal issue.

The American campaign makes it inevitable that abortion will continue to be debated in the public domain north of the border. It is destined to be an election issue, to an extent yet to be determined.

The Liberals will declare their undying commitment to the right to choose as they seek to consolidate their support among women. The Conservatives will avoid saying anything provocative, but some of their candidates, if not the leader himself, will not hesitate to emit a few dog whistles to their pro-life supporters.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 07:57