Canada is one of the few countries in the world lacking any legal restrictions on abortion. This is not because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the courts say there can be no such law. Indeed, in the famous Morgentaler ruling in which the Supreme Court struck down the existing regulations governing abortion, Justice Bertha Wilson invited Parliament to craft a new abortion law and suggested restrictions on abortion might be most appropriate in the second trimester.
Parliament subsequently tried to take up the court's recommendation. Brian Mulroney's government in the 1980s and 1990s introduced two pieces of legislation aimed at providing some form of legal regulation. In both cases, the legislation was shot down by a coalition of opposites: pro-choice legislators who resented any legal governance of abortion and pro-life legislators who resisted any measure short of prohibition.
The result is the stalemate -- and the lack of any legal regulation whatsoever -- we have today.
The failure to come to a conclusion on an abortion law reflects how abortion is an issue that crosscuts voter support for both the Liberal and the Conservative parties. Those parties cannot take a clear position on the abortion issue without antagonizing some portion of their support bases, not to mention members of their caucuses.
Thus, while the NDP has consistently articulated a position on the issue, the Liberal and Conservative parties have either ignored the issue or attempted to stifle conflict over abortion. The latest manifestation of this is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's refusal to reopen the abortion debate while in office. The status quo in the Liberal and Conservative parties is that both pro-choice and pro-life MPs reside peaceably in the same party by simply not raising the issue.
This status quo -- in place for roughly a quarter of a century -- came to an abrupt close two weeks ago when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reoriented his party toward a more resolute pro-choice position. He did so by announcing no future candidates would be permitted to run under the Liberal banner unless they agreed to vote in a pro-choice manner once elected.
Trudeau's pronouncement means the peaceable coexistence of pro-choice and pro-life Liberals is now at an end. The breed of pro-life Liberals that once made up a significant proportion of the party coalition when Jean Chrétien was scoring majority governments in the 1990s can now be expected with time to disappear from the party.
One consequence of this decision will be to allow the Conservatives to corner the market on pro-life votes without actually having to do anything to earn them. The Conservatives have now been in power for eight years and, in each election, rely on pro-life supporters to vote for, donate to, and provide labour for the party. Pro-life Canadians, however, have seen few rewards for these efforts.
Indeed, Harper's PMO has sought to suppress any legislative effort whatsoever that touches -- however indirectly -- on the abortion issue. Despite the government's inaction, Conservatives can now in the wake of Trudeau's decision legitimately claim that theirs is the only party in which pro-life Canadians can feel welcome. The prime minister himself has already done so. It's difficult to see how this benefits the Liberals.
But the bigger question relates to the future of the Liberal party itself. In its new, unfamiliar place as the third party in Canadian politics, the Liberal party may proceed down two paths.
First, it may try to reclaim its role as a big brokerage party; receiving support from wide swaths of Canadians with diverse and often conflicting views; and winning majority governments as a result.
Second, the Liberal party may continue its retreat into a third party of the ideological centre -- with clear positions on a range of issues -- and that is strong in affluent urban areas but weak almost everywhere else.
Whatever one thinks about abortion, Trudeau's pronouncements on the issue suggest he's intent on taking the Liberal party down the second path.
Royce Koop is an assistant professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.