A Harper Majority? Say Goodbye to Abortion Rights

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, www.arcc-cdac.ca

April 19, 2011

Abortion could easily be recriminalized under a Conservative majority government, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s promises to the contrary. All that’s required is the passage of a private member’s bill (PMB) via a free vote.

During last year’s debate on Bill C-510, a private member’s bill banning “coerced abortion,” Harper said that he and his Cabinet members would vote against it, a promise that he kept. He also discouraged his MPs from voting in favour of it, but 87 of them did anyway, including 10 of his 35 Cabinet members (after he told them not to) as well as 10 Liberals. Luckily, the bill was still defeated thanks to the strength of combined Bloc, NDP, and Liberal votes, but that cushion would be gone with a majority Conservative government. Even if Harper and most of his Cabinet members continue to vote against any abortion-related PMB, the sizable contingent of anti-choice Liberal MPs who would vote with the increased number of Conservatives, could easily secure the bill’s victory. Currently, at least 66% of Harper’s current caucus are anti-choice (along with 17% of the Liberal caucus), according to the list put together by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC).

There have been 35 anti-abortion private member bills and motions introduced in Canada since 1987. Most came from Conservative MPs or Senators (or former Reform or Alliance MPs), but 12 were sponsored by Liberal MPs or Senators. Here’s a few examples of past PMBs and motions that ARCC believes are the most likely ones to come back for passage under a Conservative majority government:

  • A bill to give legal personhood to fetuses as victims of crime (similar to Bill C-484)
  • A bill to permit medical personnel to refuse to help patients who request abortion or birth control services (similar to Bill C-537)
  • A bill to criminalize abortion after 20 weeks of gestation (similar to Bill C-338)
  • A bill to criminalize “coercing” women into abortion (similar to Bill C-510)
  • A bill to require women seeking an abortion to receive mandatory counselling from a religious anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centre” (similar to motion M-482, or the bill recently passed in South Dakota)
  • A bill to cut taxpayer funding of most abortions, or a motion for a national referendum to defund abortion (similar to Bill C-515 or Motion M-83)

Can abortion really be defunded? Harper did say in the election campaign of 2004 (the year he became leader of the Conservative Party), that he would oppose any bill limiting provincial funding to abortion services, and would not support a referendum on abortion. But as soon as the Conservatives were first elected in 2006, they largely stopped enforcing the Canada Health Act, allowing provinces to flout the Act openly. For example, the feds simply dropped the arbitration process that the previous Liberal Health Minister had initiated with New Brunswick, essentially giving NB the thumbs-up to continue its illegal refusal to fund the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic. And in 2001, Harper said that provinces should exercise complete autonomy over healthcare, including funding it. A majority government could further erode the Canada Health Act, gutting national healthcare standards and permitting provincial governments to defund abortion, especially at private clinics.

In that same 2004 election campaign, Harper said that if elected he would allow free votes in Parliament on abortion-related PMBs, adding “I will not be making free votes and private member’s legislation more difficult than it is already.” Given the tight control that Harper exercises over his MPs, however, it’s highly likely that any PMB they introduce has already been vetted and approved by Harper, including the last three PMBs on abortion (Bill C-510, Bill C-484, and Bill C-537). If that’s the case, Harper’s stated opposition to abortion-related bills cannot be trusted.

Harper is anti-choice himself, according to ARCC’s list of anti-choice MPs (on the basis of him voting in favour of Bill C-484 and against Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s Order of Canada). Further, Harper did not rebut Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe during the English language leader’s debate on April 12, when Duceppe challenged him on the fact that a majority government could pass private member bills to restrict abortion.

Earlier in April, when asked by reporters if he would introduce government measures against abortion or gay marriage if he wins a majority, Harper said no. He has also said that nothing would change with a majority: “Our agenda is the same agenda with a majority government or a minority government. … We will govern on the platform that we are elected on.” But there is absolutely no reason for Harper to even want a majority unless he’s going to take advantage of it to move forward on a right-wing agenda. No doubt he’s cautious on the abortion issue because he doesn’t want to deal with the huge firestorm of media and political opposition that would be ignited with a government-sponsored bill to restrict abortion – but it could happen anyway.

Harper will be under tremendous pressure from his caucus and right-wing base to pass abortion restrictions. Many of his anti-choice MPs are hardliners who do not respect Harper’s official stance against abortion legislation and will see a majority government as an opportunity to aggressively push the issue. In addition, anti-choice MPs are in the habit of proposing Trojan Horse laws that claim to protect pregnant women, but that instead would impose barriers to abortion access or change the definition of human being to include “unborn child”. If a government-sponsored bill was cloaked in this manner, Harper could pretend it’s not about restricting abortion and therefore doesn’t count as abortion legislation. It’s even possible that a deceptive piece of anti-abortion legislation could be snuck into the Omnibus crime bill, which Harper has promised to pass within 100 days of taking power.

Further, if Harper wants to avoid accountability for an abortion-related PMB from his MPs, all he has to do is wait for a Liberal MP to introduce one. Anti-choice Liberal and Conservative MPs (and a few Senators) work together to bring forward anti-abortion bills via the Parliamentary Pro-life Caucus (PPLC). Around 60-70 MPs are thought to be members of the caucus, probably including most of those on ARCC’s list except for Cabinet members. This 2004 article by Lloyd Mackey names 50 probable members at that time, including Harper himself.

The PPLC was founded in 1998 by several anti-choice MPs and Campaign Life Coalition, Canada’s national anti-choice group. The Coalition continues to work closely with the caucus, as well as persuade other anti-choice MPs to join it. Jason Kenney, now the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, was one of the founding MPs and a first co-chair of the PPLC. Kenney was also a radical anti-abortion activist in his university days.

It’s clear that a majority Conservative government could pose a grave danger to abortion rights and access in Canada – not to mention other women’s rights, universal healthcare, gay marriage, the environment, democracy, and countless other issues that progressives are deeply worried about. With this election, Harper is closer than ever before to achieving his coveted majority. He must be stopped. For that reason, ARCC is advocating strategic voting. If you live in a swing riding (see the Catch22 campaign), please consider voting for the candidate with the best chance to beat the Conservative candidate, whether that be Liberal, NDP, Green, or Bloc. Our ability to safeguard abortion rights and funding may depend on it.

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