What Could Happen to Reproductive Rights Under a Harper Majority?

By Joyce Arthur, Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada

May 18, 2011

The Harper majority and its right-wing base could take many actions over the next four years to restrict or try to restrict reproductive rights and access. A Conservative majority means that the pro-choice movement, its allies, and the public are the true Official Opposition when it comes to protecting the right to abortion. We must hit back hard and fast at any attempt to restrict abortion rights or access. Even if that attempt is likely to fail, it will still give us an opportunity to educate the public and establish closer working ties with the NDP.

The following list is a prediction of possible actions that could be initiated or promoted by anti-choice MPs, the Pro-Life Parliamentary Caucus, the Prime Minister, and other anti-choice government officials, as well as by the anti-choice movement. Predictions are based on the history of past anti-choice actions, anti-choice news stories and wish lists, mainstream news stories, and U.S. anti-choice measures that could be imported to Canada. The likelihood of each prediction coming to pass is also rated, although this is somewhat subjective.

Private Member Bills

1.  Introduce private member bills. (highly likely, top priority for the anti-choice movement)

There have been 43 anti-choice private member bills and motions introduced in Canada since 1987. None have passed, but with a majority government, the chances of passage increase, especially if we can’t count on Harper whipping his Cabinet to vote against them. Anti-choice leaders are already warning us to expect a private member’s bill limiting abortion by the fall. Here’s some past PMBs and motions that may be the most likely ones to be re-introduced:

  • Establish legal personhood for fetuses, such as by making them separate victims of crime (similar to Bill C-484), or by changing or muddying the definition of “human being” in the Criminal Code.
  • Permit medical personnel to refuse to serve patients who request abortion or birth control services (similar to Bill C-537).
  • Criminalize abortion after 20 weeks of gestation (similar to Bill C-338).
  • Criminalize “coercing” women into abortion (similar to Bill C-510).
  • Compel abortion providers to provide medically-inaccurate information to patients under the guise of “informed consent”, including false claims that abortion leads to breast cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, infertility, etc. (similar to Motion M-482).

New PMBs that could be introduced are based on existing restrictions in the U.S.:

  • Force women to undergo and view an ultrasound of their fetus before they can have an abortion.
  • Require women under 18 to obtain parental consent for seeking abortions, or require abortion providers to notify parents of minors.
  • Require women seeking an abortion to receive mandatory counselling from a religious anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centre” (similar to the bill recently passed in South Dakota)
  • Require women to notify the “biological father” before they can have an abortion.

Defunding of Abortion

2.  Launch provincial campaigns (by the anti-choice movement) to try to defund abortion, particularly in the Prairies and Maritimes. (highly likely, top priority)

3.  Call for a national referendum to defund abortion, and if successful, penalize provinces that fund abortion, similar to Bill C-515 or Motion M-83. (highly likely, top priority for the anti-choice movement)

4.  Continue to allow New Brunswick to openly violate the Act by not funding the Fredericton Morgentaler Clinic, and refuse to enforce the Canada Health Act against other provinces that defund abortion. (highly likely)

5.  Continue not enforcing the Canada Health Act in general, or amend it to make it more toothless. (highly likely)

Harper said 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 in 2001, Harper said that provinces should exercise complete autonomy over healthcare, including funding it. After he became Prime Minister, Harper expressed support for the Canada Health Act, but has shown he cannot be trusted. 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. At least five provinces are turning a blind eye to private clinics that charge a fee, with no repercussions from Health Canada. Further, Harper supported the Quebec plan to allow private health care insurance and private clinics, breaking a 2006 election promise that he would enforce the Canada Health Act.

If the Harper majority further erodes the Canada Health Act, it could lead to the gutting of national healthcare standards, leaving each province free to do its own thing. Besides the risk of increased privatization of healthcare and patient user fees, it would make it easier for provincial governments to defund abortion. Since New Brunswick is already not being penalized, other provinces have little to fear from the feds if they defund abortion, at least at private clinics.

However, defunding abortion may be a near-impossible task for the anti-choice movement, as provinces would be reluctant to invite a Charter challenge. In 1991, 63% of voters in Saskatchewan voted to defund abortion, but the incoming government dropped the issue after getting legal advice that it would be unconstitutional, because defunding abortion while funding pregnancy and childbirth would constitute discrimination on the basis of sex. Nonetheless, it will be very important to fight a defunding campaign and use it as an opportunity to educate the public on the medical necessity of abortion. A recent Angus Reid poll showed that 44% of Canadians support full funding for abortion, so we are not far from achieving a majority in case a referendum ever does take place.

Defunding of Reproductive Health and Rights

6.  Continue defunding domestic organizations and women’s groups that support or advocate for reproductive rights. (highly likely)

7.  Continue denial of funding to International Planned Parenthood Federation. (highly likely)

8.  Defund other organizations and programs (domestic or international) that provide abortion services or other reproductive health services, including contraception and comprehensive sex education. (highly likely, at least for abortion)

9.  Fund anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centres.” (highly likely)

Dozens of domestic groups have had their funding reduced or cut under Harper’s reign so far. The IPPF submitted a new funding application to CIDA in the spring of 2010 that complied with Canada’s new prohibition against funding safe abortion, but have still not heard back.

Abortion is not the only area of women’s healthcare that may be at risk. In the U.S., the Christian right is working hard to cut all federal funding for reproductive healthcare for women, including contraception, PAP smears, STI screening and treatment, breast exams, cervical cancer screening, and other essential care. Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in federal funding have been awarded to CPCs in the U.S. since 2000.

Parliament, Senate, Supreme Court, and Legal Measures

10.  Appoint two or three anti-choice judges to the Supreme Court (out of at least five vacancies), and appoint mostly conservative judges at lower courts. (highly likely)

11.  Appoint more anti-choice Conservatives to the Senate. (highly likely)

12.  Appoint anti-choice ministers, secretaries of state, or other officials in portfolios that affect women’s health or reproductive rights. (highly likely)

13.  Continue to weaken and undermine Parliament and its committees, so that the voices and work of pro-choice MPs can more easily be silenced and shelved. (highly likely)

14.  Refuse to ratify or recognize international agreements, protocols, treaties, and laws that recognize women’s reproductive rights. (highly likely)

15.  Invoke the Charter of Rights “notwithstanding” clause to override court decisions that conflict with government ideology. (not likely, but often touted by anti-choicers)

Public Policy

16.  Use the new “Office of Religious Freedom” to privilege and empower right-wing religious groups over secular groups. (highly likely)

17.  Promote or implement anti-choice policies or positions in health, education, the justice system, human resources, foreign affairs, and other areas. (highly likely)

18.  Refuse to sanction research or support medical trials on abortion drugs or new abortion technologies, and discourage Health Canada testing and approval. (somewhat likely if mifepristone approval gets closer)

19.  Ban public funding for research or programs involving the use of embryonic stem cells. (not likely, but a priority for the anti-choice movement)

Other sources:

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