by Sarah Boesveld. May 16, 2014.
When Justin Trudeau declared this month that Liberal candidates would be required to be ‘‘openly pro-choice,’’ abortion foe Andrea Mrozek was thrilled.
The founder of the ProLife ProWoman blog also privately cheered when Niki Ashton, the NDPs Status of Women critic, put forth a motion asking Parliament to affirm “a woman’s right to choose abortion.’’
Although both Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Ashton were attempting to shut down any debate on abortion, to Ms. Mrozek they have had the opposite effect.
For anti-abortion activists such as Ms. Mrozek, this month has been prime time: Media attention squared on a massive march on Parliament Hill, a simmering debate in the Maritimes around access to abortion, and particularly Mr. Trudeau’s edict and the resulting backlash.
“I’m a fan of the debate, I’m a fan of the discussion,” said Ms. Mrozek. “The most interesting part is that the pro-lifers didn’t bring it up this time.”
The debate almost seems to be about whether it’s time to have a real debate in Canada about abortion — a case long declared closed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who once again expressed disinterest in the topic when asked about it Thursday on a visit to New Brunswick, where a Morgentaler Clinic is slated to close by end of July.
“There’s a good side and a bad side
For those in support of abortion rights, there hasn’t been a debate about the legality of abortion since the Supreme Court ruled in favour of abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler in 1988, deeming the abortion provision in the Criminal Code unconstitutional and a violation of a woman’s Charter right to security of the person.
“I’ve always said that when the anti-choice say ‘let’s re-open the abortion debate,’ that’s a code for restricting abortion and that’s where we don’t want to go,” said Ms. Arthur, executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition. “It was decided 26 years ago, why do we have to keep talking about this?”
But the 1988 Morgentaler decision did not say abortion could not be regulated, it simply struck down the existing system of hospital committees. The Mulroney government’s subsequent bill C-43 failed to pass the Senate in 1990 — and no government has tried to legislate abortion since.
The polls continue to tell varied tales of where the public stands on the issue. A 2013 poll of 1,000 Canadians by Angus-Reid found 35% are in favour of the status quo, which is no legal restriction on abortion; 59% saw “no point” in re-opening the abortion debate. A 2012 nationwide Ipsos Reid survey found that 45% of Canadians felt an abortion should be performed in “any” circumstance, but 60% supported the introduction of a law that would place limits on when a woman could have an abortion, such as in the last trimester of pregnancy.
Despite Mr. Harper’s edict, several Conservative MPs have offered abortion-related private member’s motions. In 2012, several Conservative MPs, including Rona Ambrose, then minister responsible for the status of women, supported M-312, MP Stephen Woodworth private member’s motion that would have struck a committee to study parts of the Criminal Code that establish when a fetus becomes a legal person. The last major attempt on abortion, by MP Mark Warawa, was quashed by his own colleagues when it reached a Commons committee.
“The Harper government has been trotting out these backbencher bills for years and I think Canadians are really tired of it, they’re ill thought out and poorly written bills,” said Celia Posyniak, executive director of the Kensington Clinic in Calgary, which performs abortions. “If you ever dug a little deeper to what’s really going on, you’d find out they’re full of falsehoods and scare tactics.”
But the motions, as well as the mobilization on the part of abortion activists to increase access in the Maritimes (there is no abortion provider on Prince Edward Island) had begun to offer oxygen to the anti-abortion camp even before Mr. Trudeau spoke up, observers say.
Over the past few years, abortion foes have tried to almost re-brand or re-strategize to widen the tent and appeal to more Canadians, said Kelly Gordon, a phD candidate at the University of Ottawa who has co-authored a forthcoming book, with Ottawa U professor Paul Surette, on Canada’s anti-abortion movement (of which she is a critic).
“There’s a resurgence of the abortion debate in Canada but it’s often under-recognized because they’re shifting tactics,” she said. The movement has focused less on religion and more on the way it believes abortion impacts women. Anti-abortion activists have also become far more diverse to include more women — the Silent No More cohort of women who regretted their abortions years later — younger people and some immigrant populations.
Mike Schouten, of WeNeedALaw.ca says the ultimate goal is indeed to make an extremely divisive issue less polarizing and more palatable to people who may find themselves in favour of some limitations on abortion.
“We’re not presenting ourselves as right-wing Christian fundamentalists who want to dictate religion to people,” said the Surrey, B.C., based activist, who acknowledges his Protestant Christian faith anchors his position on abortion. “No, we’re an organization concerned about human rights and justice and attempting to work with all Canadians to bridge that gap with what we truly believe in our hearts.”
Discussing sex-selective abortions and late-term abortions is another way to deeply mine how Canadians really feel about abortion, he said, something Ms. Gordon has made note of as well.
“That’s a huge part of their strategy,” she said — to focus on “exceptions” rather than the majority of abortion services carried out in Canada.
“There’s no evidence that sex-selective abortions happen in Canada, but that’s definitely an issue in which people say ‘Well I believe in women’s rights, and I thought I believed in abortion, but you know…’” she said. “It disrupts the narrative that abortion is a women’s rights issue.”
Some of this re-tooling of anti-abortion strategy stems from the Kermit Gosnell case. In 2013, Gosnell, an abortion provider in Pennsylvania, was convicted of murdering three infants who were born alive during procedures, among other charges. His case became a lightning rod in the American abortion debate.
“My read on it was they wanted to protect abortion more than they wanted to protect women,” said Jakki Jeffs, the executive director of the Alliance for Life Ontario, which launched its We Want a Debate campaign in 2011 after the Gosnell case.
She believes that is part of the motivation for Mr. Trudeau and his Liberals, and feels the leader’s statement that anti-abortion views were not welcome in his Liberal caucus will not wash with many Canadians who believe in free speech and democracy.
Cardinal Thomas Collins shared those same concerns. On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Toronto released a public letter to Mr. Trudeau saying he was “deeply concerned” that Liberal MPs be “excluded” for “being faithful to their conscience.”
He acknowledged it is an extraordinary move for him to dip into politics in this way, but said these are extraordinary times and he felt it was important to speak out as a “spiritual leader of a diocese which contains people of all parties,” he told the National Post this week.
At the Toronto Star — where Liberal politics are lionized — a leading columnist, Rosie DiManno, berated Mr. Trudeau for recklessly plunging the country deeper into the controversy around abortion. “The irony of unintended consequences here is that all of a sudden abortion is back in the domain of public debate, which we could all have done without,” she wrote. Even the more anti-abortion-friendly Conservatives had been more careful about keeping the issue relatively quiet in the past, she noted, precisely because of its divisiveness within the Tory caucus.
As the week went on, Mr. Trudeau seemed to soften somewhat, talking not about his candidate’s views but about their votes: “People are welcome to join the Liberal party, regardless of their personal views, and express their views, but when it comes to voting on legislation, that is a different thing.’’
Ms. Ashton’s motion, meanwhile, was cancelled Thursday, falling way to other NDP priorities and, some speculate, a fear that it could have the opposite of its intended effect.
Speaking that same day in New Brunswick, Mr. Harper said, again, he will continue to stay away from legislating on abortion: “Our government is going to do everything we can to keep from reopening that particular debate,” he said.
That debate, though, seems to be happening without him.
Source: National Post