Cathay Wagantall introduced a previous bill on sex-selective abortion that was defeated two years ago. Her party claims the current bill has nothing to do with abortion, but Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada disagrees. Last week’s debate in the House was very heated. But it is nothing compared to the heat faced by any Conservative who thinks they can deny women’s right to choose.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 15, 2023.
OTTAWA—Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre claims he is in support of LGBTQ issues and a woman’s right to reproductive choice.
But his parliamentary record tells a different story.
As a young MP, Poilievre’s first intervention in the House was a speech to explain why he believed that people seeking medical help for gender reassignment should not receive any public funding.
His proposed ban involved provincial health-care systems but apparently, he felt it was such an important issue that it dominated his maiden speech in the House of Commons.
The Conservative leader has the same credibility issues regarding reproductive choice.
Last week, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada arrived on Parliament Hill to promote the view that abortions and medically assisted dying should be banned in Canada.
To coincide with their annual march in May, the Conservative MP from Yorkton-Melville, Sask., introduced the Violence Against Pregnant Women private member’s bill, ostensibly dealing with the “legal void around abortion in Canada.”
Cathay Wagantall introduced a previous bill on sex-selective abortion that was defeated two years ago. Her party claims the current bill has nothing to do with abortion, but Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada disagrees. Coalition executive director Joyce Arthur said some groups who oppose abortion view the bill as a positive step because they feel it would legally recognize “pre-born children” in the case of violent crimes, which is not the case now.
Wagantall also links her bill to an anti-choice website, which states that “pre-born children should be considered victims.”
Last month in Parliament, Wagantall stated “Canada has no abortion law and it is still a huge discussion in our country.”
Montreal Liberal MP Rachel Bendayan refuted Wagantall’s claim during a passionate speech in defence of abortion rights.
“Where is this still a huge discussion in our country. … It’s only the Conservatives that want to discuss abortion law in our country because there is certainly no doubt that it is the Conservatives reopening this debate.”
Jurists believe that this is a bill that could be interpreted to give legal status to the fetus. How else to explain why a sentence should be tougher for the murder of a pregnant woman than a defenseless child or an eighty-year-old wheelchair-bound victim?
Bill opponents see the legislation as a backdoor legal argument for giving legal status to a fetus.
And Wagantall’s communications strategy reinforces that thinking.
While publicly, Conservative caucus members were claiming this issue had nothing to do with abortion, the member’s web links told a different story.
It was certainly no accident that the bill was up for debate during the same week that opponents of abortion gather in Ottawa for their annual protest.
The Conservative leadership had to agree on the timing of the private member’s debate.
If the legal status of fetuses is reinforced by legislation that differentiates between pregnant women and all other crime victims, the door will be open to a judicial decision to limit access to abortion based on the rights of the fetus.
In the United States, Donald Trump does not hide the fact that his appointments to their Supreme Court paved the way to a recent ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, the judicial decision that legalized their abortions.
Just last week, in his bid for re-election, Trump took credit for the court’s anti-abortion ruling and garnered huge applause from the majority Republican audience in a televised townhall on CNN.
Canadian observers claim no one is about to reverse Canada’s position on reproductive choice, but a court decision on fetal rights could have the same effect as the reversal being witnessed in the United States.
Poilievre says he supports legal abortions, but courted those Conservatives who opposed reproductive rights in his bid for the Tory leadership.
Wagantall says Poilievre also plans to vote in favour of the legislation, sending a signal that a fetus will have legal standing in a Conservative government.
Poilievre is treading carefully on the question because he doesn’t want to lose the support of the majority of Canadian women who support reproductive choice. He is already having more difficulty in bringing women onside and support for this bill would exacerbate his problems.
The Republicans are facing the same dilemma as traditional female supporters deserted them in the last mid-terms because of the abortion issue.
Last week’s woman-led debate in the House was very heated.
But it is nothing compared to the heat faced by any Conservative who thinks they can deny women’s right to choose.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.