HomePoliticsThe fate of Roe v. Wade puts both Liberals and Conservatives on...

The fate of Roe v. Wade puts both Liberals and Conservatives on the spot

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said the “only ones reopening” the abortion debate “are the Liberals.”

Unfortunately for Bergen, Arnold Viersen, a Conservative MP who describes himself as “pro-life,” had stopped to speak to reporters outside West Block two hours earlier. He was asked whether this was a debate that needed to be reopened. “I would generally say that the debate’s never been closed,” he replied.

Bergen and some of her fellow Conservatives might wish to see the discussion closed — and she’s surely not wrong to suggest the Liberals are happy to bring it up. But Viersen’s view is closer to the truth of the current situation, though many would disagree with his reasons for saying so.

Because even if no major federal party is officially in favour of criminalizing abortion, the practical and political realities of abortion in Canada are more complicated than a simple question of whether the debate needs to be “reopened.”

And if the United States Supreme Court is about to overturn the precedent of Roe v. Wade, there will be new pressure on both the Conservatives and the Liberal government to reckon with their own positions.

Officially, the Conservative Party’s position is that “a Conservative Government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.” That statement can be found in the party’s official policy declaration. Statements issued Tuesday by Conservative leadership candidates Jean Charest and Pierre Poilievre echoed that wording.

Even with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, that position would make it exceedingly difficult for a bill restricting abortion to pass Parliament. Without the votes of Conservative cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries (and assuming all Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green MPs remain opposed), such a bill would be very unlikely to find enough support.

The Conservatives no doubt hope to reassure pro-choice voters. But Conservative backbenchers remain free to “reopen” the debate with private members’ bills and motions related to abortion.

Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall asks a question in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Last year, for instance, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall brought forward a bill on sex-selective abortion. When it came to a vote last June, 81 Conservative MPs (and one former Conservative MP) voted in favour.

Leaning on appeals to democratic principle, Conservatives might insist — as Charest did in his statement on Tuesday — that MPs should be free to table such bills. But they can’t then reasonably claim that it’s only Liberals who insist on talking about abortion.

At the same time, the abortion “debate” in Canada goes beyond the question of whether backbench MPs should have the freedom to pursue such initiatives.

Conservatives and conscience rights

While a Conservative government wouldn’t directly limit abortion, the Conservative policy declaration says the party “supports conscience rights for doctors, nurses and others to refuse to participate in, or refer their patients for abortion, assisted suicide, or euthanasia.”

Under former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, similar language appeared in the party’s election platform. Pressed by reporters during the election campaign, O’Toole backtracked by saying that medical professionals opting out of such procedures would still be expected to provide referrals to their patients.

It’s also official Conservative policy that “abortion should be explicitly excluded from Canada’s maternal and child health program in countries where Canadian aid is delivered” — a position that Stephen Harper’s government put into practice in 2014.

Since the Liberal government renounced that policy after it came to office in 2015, it’s reasonable to ask whether the next Conservative leader would reinstate the exclusion if he or she forms government.

And if loud fights over new limits to abortion in the United States are likely to be front and centre for the foreseeable future, it will be that much harder for the Conservatives to sidestep such questions.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to Roe v. Wade report

Trudeau reacts to news of possible overturn of Roe v. Wade by U.S. Supreme Court

Following a leak of a report stating the possibly that the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated his support for a woman’s right to choose and access an abortion. 1:19

After becoming Liberal leader in 2013, Justin Trudeau loudly declared that the Liberal Party would be strictly pro-choice. But, as with the example of foreign aid, the Trudeau government’s stance on abortion has not been purely rhetorical.

In 2020 and 2021, the federal government penalized the government of New Brunswick for refusing to cover the cost of abortion services provided outside a hospital. Using its authority under the Canada Health Act, the Trudeau government subtracted $140,000 from New Brunswick’s share of the federal health transfer, equal to the amount that patients paid to access those services.

What the Liberals have promised

A future Conservative government might have to decide whether to maintain that level of enforcement.

But if Liberals insist on the importance of a woman’s right to choose — and if the demise of Roe v. Wade in the United States demonstrates how precious that right can be — they won’t be entitled to rest on their laurels. Access to abortion remains inconsistent across Canada.

Meghan Doherty — director of global policy and advocacy for Action Canada, a non-profit promoting reproductive health rights — points to existing Liberal commitments to withhold charitable status from anti-abortion organizations that provide “dishonest counselling” and to create an online portal that provides “accurate, judgment-free and evidence-based information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.” That portal also would include “a section that counters misinformation about abortion.”

Pro-choice demonstrators rally at the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton on Thursday, April 17, 2014. (David Smith/The Canadian Press)

“One of the biggest barriers to access to abortion is being able to find the information that you need to … know what you need to do, who you need to contact and [how] to navigate what can sometimes be a complex system – particularly for folks who are on low incomes, people who live in rural areas, young people and people with precarious immigration status,” Doherty said Wednesday.

In last year’s budget, the Liberals committed $45 million to supporting community organizations that provide sexual and reproductive health information or support (Action Canada has applied for funding.).

But the Liberals also committed in the last election to establishing “regulations under the Canada Health Act governing accessibility for sexual and reproductive health services.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trudeau said that measure would be aimed at “ensuring that not just under this government, but under any future government, the rights of women are properly protected.”

Doherty said that Liberal commitment is vague, but she suggested the government could act to set benchmarks or minimum standards for service.

“There’s always more they can do” to expand or enhance abortion access at the provincial level, she said. The question, she added, is where abortion sits on the government’s list of priorities.

“When the federal government meets with the provinces and meets with the premier of New Brunswick and the minister of health for New Brunswick, are they talking about this? Are they working towards some sort of a solution? Are they exerting the power that they hold as the federal government to make that a reality?” Doherty asked.

“Are provinces reporting on what services are available? What are the barriers that people are experiencing? What are they doing to increase access? There’s lots of creative ways that this could happen … And if you say that this is going to be a priority, as the Liberals have, then you have to back that up with action and we need to see the results of that.”



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