Expect abortion bombshell to dominate the fall agenda

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The only party that must navigate this issue with great difficulty is the Conservative Party.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 9, 2022.

OTTAWA—The f-bomb was allegedly dropped in the House of Commons on May 4 by a frustrated prime minister.

It was not picked up by any microphone and even though Conservatives vociferously demanded an apology, even they were at odds over what exactly was said.

Upon exiting the House, Justin Trudeau himself mimicked his own father’s explanation when Trudeau senior was accused of using the same language in 1971.

Members of the official opposition jumped on the transgression, but their voices were muted when a clip of leadership front-runner Pierre Poilievre emerged on social media, saying, “Fuck you guys” at a legislative committee.

An f-bomb may have been fatal a half-century ago, but today it barely makes a ripple in news coverage.

In the same way as language has been liberated, so too have social attitudes.

The notion that a non-binary leader could be the head of a Canadian political party was unheard of 50 years ago.

In fact, no one really even knew what non-binary meant.

Today, the interim leader of the Green Party is non-binary and it is common to state his/her/their declaratory gender preference.

Fifty years ago, the notion of legalizing abortion was hugely controversial. Even the most liberal of politicians had to tread carefully when the issue was up for debate.

Today, it is accepted that the majority of Canadians are in support of a woman’s right to choose.

Even in the Conservative leadership, only one candidate is openly promoting an end to abortion in Canada, even though two other candidates with similar views have been been kept off the leadership list.

The same cannot be said for Conservative party members, many of whom have public views opposing abortion and have promised to vote against the procedure in any private member’s bill brought forward in a parliamentary session.

In the last election, observers attacked the Liberals for raising the spectre of a renewed abortion debate based on the number of Tories who had promised to do so.

But now that the United States Supreme Court is preparing to rescind the law legalizing abortions in that country, the issue will move to the forefront in Canada too.

The only party that must navigate this issue with great difficulty is the Conservative Party.

The prime minister has already said that the government is looking at a regulatory amendment to the Canada Health Act to guarantee a woman’s universal right to reproductive choice. No time limit has been put on the move but one thing is certain.

The amendment will force the Conservative Party to take a solid position on the issue once and for all.

The longer it takes to bring in any changes, the better it is for the Liberals. The government would love nothing better than to have that wedge issue to present to Canadians in the next election.

Six months ago, the issue was not even on the general public agenda.

But with the bombshell leak on Roe v. Wade last week, there is no doubt that a woman’s right to choose will be an ongoing political issue south of the border. And what dominates in the United States will undoubtedly have a spillover effect in Canada.

According to the Pew Research Center in Washington, 59 per cent of Americans support abortion access. That number jumps to more than 70 per cent in Canada.

A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, expected in June, would immediately impact access in all states across the country, including those that currently offer the right of abortion to all.

The result of a legal reversal to reproductive access by the United States will embolden the minority of Canadians who have been actively opposing abortions for years.

It will also mean that more money, and more volunteers will be crossing the border with the same fervour enjoyed by the cross-border movement of ‘freedom fighters’ who joined the Ottawa truckers’ occupation.

There is no law in Canada on the issue of reproductive choice, but there are standards of care that have been developed by the medical profession.

However, there is an uneven application of these standards, with some provinces offer little or no access while most other provinces make abortions readily available.

The Liberals promised in the last election to introduce regulations forcing less-compliant provinces to open up their abortion access requirements.

In 2020 and 2021, New Brunswick suffered federally-imposed financial penalties totalling almost $300,000 for refusing to offer access.

Expect last week’s abortion bombshell, not the f-one, to dominate the fall agenda.

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