October 15, 2019

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Abortion taboo topic in federal campaign

Opinion

Let’s make one thing clear about the likelihood of any political party reopening the thorny, politically charged, no-win debate on Canada’s abortion laws: it ain’t gonna happen.

No political party – not the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, nor any other party that may hold the balance of power in a minority government – would even consider taking up the cause.

No party will campaign on it. No party leader wants to talk about it. And once in office — no matter how many “pro-life” MPs a governing party has (all parties have them) — no prime minister will have anything to do with a bill to bring in an abortion law.

So why does it keep coming up in this federal election campaign?

Let’s make one thing clear about the likelihood of any political party reopening the thorny, politically charged, no-win debate on Canada’s abortion laws: it ain’t gonna happen.

No political party – not the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, nor any other party that may hold the balance of power in a minority government – would even consider taking up the cause.

No party will campaign on it. No party leader wants to talk about it. And once in office — no matter how many "pro-life" MPs a governing party has (all parties have them) — no prime minister will have anything to do with a bill to bring in an abortion law.

So why does it keep coming up in this federal election campaign?

Handmaids' Local members counter-protest a Campaign Life Coalition rally outside the Health Sciences Centre's Women's Hospital on Sept 6. (Maggie Macintosh / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Handmaids' Local members counter-protest a Campaign Life Coalition rally outside the Health Sciences Centre's Women's Hospital on Sept 6. (Maggie Macintosh / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It’s about spreading fear. It’s the job of those who run campaigns to try to scare voters into believing their opponents have a secret plan to launch some divisive legislative agenda — including re-opening the abortion debate — the minute they assume office.

The use of fear is one of the most effective weapons in election campaigns, but for it to work, there has to be a kernel of believability to it. If a party is accusing a rival of having a secret agenda to "slash spending," there has to be a history of that party doing so, or hinting it may, in order for people to believe it.

For abortion, the main ingredient to an effective fear campaign is to highlight how many pro-life candidates a party has, especially if one of them is a party leader. It doesn’t matter how unequivocal those candidates are in rejecting suggestions they may allow their personal beliefs to trump their duties as lawmakers. The moment a candidate admits they’re opposed to abortion, they become a target in a fear campaign.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has acknowledged he is personally opposed to abortion. Like many political leaders before him, Scheer says he would not let his personal beliefs on abortion affect his decisions as a parliamentarian. He has said repeatedly that a Conservative government would not reopen the abortion debate.

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he is personally opposed to abortion, but wouldn't reopen the abortion debate if elected prime minister. (Frank Gunn / The Associated Press files)

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he is personally opposed to abortion, but wouldn't reopen the abortion debate if elected prime minister. (Frank Gunn / The Associated Press files)

There’s plenty of precedent for that among leaders. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien was very open about the fact that, for religious reasons, he was against abortion. But he insisted he would never let that influence his job as prime minister. He made good on that pledge.

Former prime minster Stephen Harper always said he wouldn’t re-open the abortion debate, and he didn’t.

The current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has said in the past he was personally opposed to abortion. But like many MPs, he vowed he wouldn’t let his religious beliefs interfere with his job as a lawmaker. It’s only recently that Trudeau said he’s changed his mind on abortion and that he’s no longer opposed to it personally.

Whatever the case, no government in Canada is going to re-open this debate. Campaign strategists can push the fear factor all they want on this issue, but there’s zero chance any political party would pursue it.

The former Mulroney government was the last to try, after Canada’s abortion law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1988. After a divisive debate and a free vote, Mulroney’s bill was narrowly passed by the House of Commons in 1990, but it was defeated in the Senate after a tie vote. Since then, no government has had any inclination to revisit it. None will.

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau used to be opposed to abortion, but vowed he wouldn’t let his religious beliefs interfere with his job. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau used to be opposed to abortion, but vowed he wouldn’t let his religious beliefs interfere with his job. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

Why should they? There’s no upside to it. Any government that tried to take it on would face nothing but grief, a caucus revolt and probably a sharp decline in public support.

Besides, even though Canada doesn’t technically have a law governing abortion, the legislative void that’s existed since 1988 serves the country reasonably well. Providing the service is lawful. Women have the right to choose, as they should. And notwithstanding some of the challenges that still exist in Canada when it comes to accessing abortion services, the system works fairly well.

For most politicians, leaving well enough alone is the preferred option, regardless of their personal views on abortion.

That’s not about to change anytime soon.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

Read full biography

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