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Free Votes and the Future of Abortion Politics

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By Joyce Arthur (copyright © July 2004)

During Canada's federal election campaign, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper repeatedly stated that if elected, his government would not table abortion legislation and would not hold a referendum on abortion. He said it's up to the provinces to decide how abortion services are administered. However, he also said he would allow free votes in Parliament on abortion-related private member bills.

In response to criticism over the free vote issue, Harper said, "I will not be making free votes and private member's legislation more difficult than it is already." He indicated that a bill restricting abortion would have almost no chance of passing. Although it's true that private members' bills are extremely difficult to pass (hundreds are introduced each year), a few certainly can be passed with enough support. In the most recent Parliament (37th, 2nd Session), four private members' bills received royal assent, and several others were passed by the House of Commons. One of them was Svend Robinson's bill to include sexual orientation in Canada's hate crime legislation.

Harper said his vote on any private member's bill to restrict abortion "would depend on the specifics of the legislation." When asked how he would respond if one of his MPs brought forward a bill to cut funding for abortion, Harper said, "I would oppose that. I think health-care money should go to the provinces for them to decide how to run a health care system."

Harper's insistence on free votes was likely a sop to the anti-abortion movement. Party leaders have the authority to require their MPs to vote along party lines, not according to their own conscience. Perhaps Harper's personal views on abortion also had something to do with his preference for free votes. When asked by the media whether he was pro-choice or pro-life, he said, "I've tended to avoid those kinds of labels because my own views tend to not be on either pole of that issue." He also said, "I wouldn't say I like abortion, but I think abortion is a reality that is with us." This probably means Harper would like to stop abortion if he could, but believes he can't—at least right now. Indeed, Harper was careful to specify that abortion legislation would not be tabled in his government's first term.

Since a minority of all new MP's are publicly anti-choice (just under one-third), a private member's bill restricting abortion would rarely make it out of the starting gate. But that raises the question of why Harper would even allow such a futile bill to travel through the Parliamentary process at all. What's the point? Surely Harper is not so protective of private members' bills that literally anything goes, no matter how offensive or ridiculous. Would he allow one of his MP's to introduce a private member's bill forcing all gay people to wear pink stars on their sleeves? How about one calling for all Muslim Canadians to be detained in camps on suspicion of terrorism? Obviously, there are some free votes that should never be introduced, period. If they were, the MP responsible ought be severely reprimanded, if not fired. Bills to restrict abortion should fall into the same category. That's because abortion is already a settled issue in law, as well as a matter of basic human rights for women.

However, since the Conservatives now enjoy an increased profile in Parliament, and probably a higher level of confidence as well, we may see private members' bills on abortion being introduced more frequently. In the last two years alone, six anti-choice private member bills were introduced by Conservative MPs, most of them by Saskatchewan MP Garry Breitkreuz (see list). These bills are divisive, stirring up outraged passions on every side while accomplishing nothing—other than propping up the anti-abortion movement's false bravado. Private members' bills are laborious affairs, too. Whenever such a bill is introduced, it just wastes everyone's time and resources. Instead, MPs should be devoting themselves to real issues of concern to their constituents and all Canadians.

An even worse danger might lie in the cloaked wording of a private member's bill. For example, anti-choicers are increasingly adopting the tactic of pretending to be concerned for women's health. An anti-choice MP could introduce a bill that masks its anti-abortion intent through subtle language that purports to advance women's health. Enough pro-choice MPs might be fooled into thinking the bill is positive, allowing it to succeed where others would fail. The pro-choice movement must stand guard against such attempts, since we're familiar with the double-speak language of anti-choicers.

Harper was also criticized for not doing enough to rein in his renegade MPs on abortion and other social issues. He refused to demand Rob Merrifield's resignation as Health Critic after Merrifield mused about the need for third-party counseling for women seeking abortions, and he discounted offensive comments from other MPs as their own personal opinions. But if Harper wants himself and his party to stay viable, he must stop these MPs in their tracks and publicly punish them for speaking out. His failure to do so during the campaign was costly in terms of credibility and lost seats. Although Harper got a solid vote from his right-wing base, moderate and leftist voters simply didn't trust him.

Still, even if Harper forbade right-wing MP's from speaking up or trying to pass abortion legislation, the prospect of them being secretly harboured by the Conservative party is an uneasy one. As a rule, repression doesn't work too well in human beings—an outlet will be found, usually an unhealthy one. How can a Conservative government ever be elected unless Harper takes the drastic step of expunging extremist MPs from party ranks?

One other issue deserves mention: When doing research on anti-choice MPs, we came across a number of MPs who reportedly said that regardless of their personal views on abortion, they would follow their constituents' wishes. On that basis, we omitted a few MPs from our list even though they were personally anti-abortion. But really, MPs are quite wrong to hold their constituents' views as sacrosanct. Should an MP just go along with the majority if they happen to be racist or homophobic, for example? Of course not—as elected officials, MPs are obligated to uphold the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and protect the equal rights of minorities. Human rights are not subject to majority rule in a democracy. Besides, it's impossible to know what the wishes of most constituents really are. Anti-choice people are more vocal and active than pro-choice people, so MP's would receive a skewed view and end up greasing only the sticky wheel.

As far as the abortion issue is concerned, the only true role of the government and its MPs is to respect and support women's constitutional rights by ensuring abortion access and funding. Politicians have no "right to choose"—that is the sole domain of pregnant women.

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