Conservatives’ backing of private member’s bill shows abortion debate is far from settled

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The U.S. is experiencing a wave of anti-women and anti-gay legislation. Canadian pundits said this could not happen here, but recent news stories paint a different picture.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 19, 2023.

OTTAWA—A Conservative private member’s attempt to revive the abortion debate by conferring unique legal status on pregnant women was clobbered in the House last week.

The governing Liberals united with New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois to defeat Bill C-311 by almost a two-to-one margin.

Opponents of the bill introduced by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall numbered 205. Supporters mustered only 113 votes.

Under most circumstances, that should be the end of the story. But with the Conservatives leading in national public opinion polls, and their strong support for the bill, it will only be a matter of time before the question of the legal status of fetuses ends up being litigated when a future Wagantall bill is passed.

Witness the debate concerning the Violence Against Pregnant Women Act in Parliament to understand why this legislation could represent a threat to legal abortions in the country.

The United States is already experiencing a wave of anti-women and anti-gay legislation as a result of a Supreme Court ruling that put legal abortions at risk in parts of their country.

Canadian pundits said this could not happen here, but another item in the news last week paints a different picture.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith named her cabinet, including a health minister with a strong bias against legal abortions. Adriana LaGrange served as education minister in the United Conservative Party government of former premier Jason Kenney. In that role, she presided over one of the largest public sector cuts in Alberta history, firing 20,000 educational assistants, substitute teachers, bus drivers and maintenance staff.

With LaGrange at the helm and Smith’s well-documented ruminations on private medicine, it likely won’t be too long before the new government moves to start charging for more health services.

Even more concerning is the minister’s opposition to legal abortion in the province. Her maiden speech in the Alberta legislature four years ago was entitled, “The lord leads me where he needs me.”

While she was a school trustee, LaGrange served on the provincial board of Alberta Pro-Life. In her first provincial election, she was backed by RightNow, an activist anti-abortion organization.

As education minister, LaGrange introduced a controversial piece of legislation requiring parental notification when any student joined a gay-straight alliance club. The original protection from parental notification was designed to protect those students who could face danger if their parents became aware of their sexual orientation. Students were also denied the right to use the word ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ in describing after-school clubs, and administrators were permitted to keep their inclusivity policies secret.

If LaGrange was controversial in education, there is no reason to think she won’t repeat that history in health. Those who think that access to abortion is safe across the country need to face facts.

Wagantall in Saskatchewan and LaGrange in Alberta are only the tip of the iceberg. When the bill on pregnant women was introduced, the Conservative party was pretty much unanimous in support, starting with the leader.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said that he will not introduce legislation on abortion, but he has also stated that other members of his caucus are free to do so.

He is the only leader ambivalent about his support for the LGBTQ2S+ communities, refusing to attend Pride parades or showing visible support for those struggling with a wave of homophobia across the country.

With a raucous parliamentary session coming to close, Poilievre’s popularity continues to outstrip that of the governing Liberals.

Abacus Data released a poll last week in which 35 per cent of the respondents said they would vote Tory if an election were held today. That number had increased three percentage points since the previous month, while the Liberals were down two points at 28 per cent.

The appetite for electoral change is there and the Conservatives are the beneficiaries. Approximately 80 per cent of those polled said it is time for a change in government.

Polls move, and most would agree that both Poilievre and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are stellar campaigners. The fight may come right down to the wire in a tight election in 2025 (or whenever it happens).

If there is a Conservative majority win, do not be surprised if limitations on women’s reproductive rights and rights for those in the gay community resurface.

Premier Smith did not hide her intention to move toward health privatization.

Her party has many abortion opponents sitting in the legislature. A key one is now occupying the health minister’s chair.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.