You can set your watch to it. With two weeks left in campaigning, the abortion issue has once against surfaced on the Conservative campaign. The issue came up at the same time in 2006 and in 2004.
This morning at a press conference in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was asked why, as a conservative, he would not be in favour of changing Canada's abortion access laws.
Here's his response:
“I've been clear throughout my entire political career. I don't intend to get into the abortion issue. I haven't in the past. I'm not going to in the future. Yes, there will be people in the Conservative Party who wish I would and there are some in the Liberal Party who also wish I would. But I have not done that in my entire political career and I don't intend to start now.
We have a lot of challenges in front of the country … That has to be the focus of government. And I simply have no intention of ever making [abortion] a focus.”
Conservative advisors knew this was coming. It was one of the reasons, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson abruptly announced a few days before the election that the government was co-opting a private member's bill from Edmonton Conservative MP Ken Epp, re-writing it to make sure, as Nicholson explained, that it could be not be interpreted as having any impact on Canada's current abortion access laws.
Epp introduced his bill to essentially make it a special kind of crime to assault a pregnant woman. Those who opposed this measure believed that it was the thin end of the wedge: If the law provides for special crimes and punishments for harming a woman and fetus, then surely the law recognizes the fetus has some kind standing under the law and, presto, you're down the road to banning abortions …
Nicholson said the government agreed that harming a woman who is pregnant should require some additional sanction or punishment but, as he stressed time and again at an August 25 press conference, his bill “leaves no room for the introduction of fetal rights.”
Nicholson may well in fact believe that but the his announcement was also a strategic one, designed by the Conservatives to try to insulate themselves from what they believe were going to be the inevitable charges from the left that they have a hidden agenda to roll back abortion access rights.
“What is on our agenda is being tough on crime and punishing criminals, and what is not on our agenda is re-opening a debate on abortion,” the prime minister's director of communication, Kory Teneycke, said at the time. “That clarity I think is helpful for Canadians, especially as we go into a period where they might be forced to make a choice.”
And, for the record, the Conservative grassroots itself voted in support of resolution in 2005 to not do anything on abortion.
Now Canadians are free to believe politicians when they make these promises but if the sole issue motivating you as you cast your ballot is to prevent abortion access rights from being rolled back, then you should cast your ballot for either an NDP or Bloc Quebecois candidate.
Though no leader likely to be prime minister — neither Harper nor Dion — would introduce any abortion law in the next Parliament, there are MPs on both sides of the House who have in the past and can be expected to again in the future introduce private members bills that address abortion. Liberal Paul Steckle had just such a bill introduced in the House in 2007. He wanted to to make it a criminal offence to have an abortion in the 21st week of pregnancy or later.
And if it did ever come to a vote, NDP and BQ MPs would be “whipped” to vote against any changes. That means NDP and BQ MPs would risk explusion from their caucuses if they voted to change abortion laws. (In late 2005, NDP MP Bev Desjarlais did just that, voting against same-sex marriage laws. She subsequently was stripped of her official critics role and then resigned from the caucus.)
If, on the other hand, you are hopeful of restricting abortion access then you to ask both your local Liberal and Conservative candidates who they would vote. There are a number of sitting MPs from both those parties who would, in fact, vote to restrict abortion access rights.
In fact, so far as we know, it is only MPs from the Liberals and the Conservatives who make up a parliamentary anti-abortion caucus. Many members of this caucus appear each year at a rally held on Parliament Hill to oppose abortion but, we are told, that there are some MPs who prefer to keep their membership in this caucus a secret.
A spokesman for the Liberals calls to say that, if there were a vote on a bill that would restrict a woman's right to choose, then Dion would, like Layton and Duceppe, whip his caucus to vote against such a bill.
And Kory Teneycke, the prime minister's chief spoksman, said that Harper would whip his front bench — i.e. his cabinet — to prevent an abortion bill from becoming law though backbenchers would be free to vote their conscience.
Now what about the Green Party? Leader Elizabeth May was asked – by a nun, no less – about this issue during a byelection she ran in London, Ont. You can review her complete answer here, but she did refer to “a frivolous right to choose” and told her audience that she is against abortion and that she has talked women out of having them. That said, the official line of her party is to preserve abortion access rights as it now stands. May was in the air when I phone the Green Party war room. They expect to have her answer on this issue later today.
UPDATE: Here is the response from the Green war room:
“Ms. May would not vote to erode a woman's right to choose and she would expect all Green MPs to vote with her on this issue. There would be serious expectations of solidarity on such a vote, but no tossing MPs from caucus for voting out of personal conscience.”
abortion, conservaties, liberals, green party, bloc quebecois, NDP