OTTAWA—Though Canada’s government includes several small-“c” conservative Christians among its leadership, most notably Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it speaks very softly on issues involving personal morality — and on abortion says nothing at all.
That’s why everyone was surprised when Michael Ignatieff, leader of the opposition, objected to Harper’s recent vow to lead the G8 countries in a campaign to improve the health of mothers and children in the Third World.
Ignatieff’s grounds: Harper’s project (made in his role as this year’s president of the G8) did not provide for improved access to abortion.
“Women are entitled to the full gamut of reproductive health services,” declared Ignatieff. “And that includes termination of pregnancy and contraception.”
Given that Harper’s Conservative Party rules with just 143 members, 15 shy of a majority, and given that all three opposition parties are avowedly pro-abortion, Ignatieff’s threat to oppose any foreign-aid plan lacking abortion had some bite to it.
Until, that is, the socialist New Democrats refused to join Ignatieff’s boycott and the separatist Bloc Quebecois simply ignored the issue.
Thus, the matter that the Tories themselves dare not raise for fear of alienating voters had been raised anyway, and the public forum was briefly full of argument about whether improving access to abortion in developing countries would improve women’s health there.
Of course it would, declared Dr. Gail Erlick Robinson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. She cited a recent survey disproving research connecting depression and abortion. This and other research showing links between abortion and heart disease and premature births all suffered, she claimed, from “severely flawed methodologies.”
And University of Alberta sociology professor Amy Kaler proclaimed that “anyone with a glancing acquaintance with reproductive health knows that cutting off legal abortion doesn’t make women healthier.”
Many begged to differ: Dr. Rene Lieva, an Ottawa doctor, noted that El Salvador’s maternal mortality rate was cut in half after the country recriminalized abortion in 1998. Ian Gentles of the De Vebers Institute of Bioethics in Toronto contributed similar data from Poland. After the fall of communism, abortion was recriminalized and the Polish maternal mortality rate fell 75%. Commented Gentles: Poland’s improvement in maternal health came “certainly not from spending a lot of money on ‘reproductive health services,’ to use the preferred euphemism.”
The outspoken bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry, weighed in, describing Ignatieff’s move as “pathetic” and “crass … particularly … in light of all the orphaned children we now see in Haiti.”
Adjunct political science professor John Redekop of Vancouver’s Trinity Western University says Prime Minister Harper’s plan should be taken “at face value: It was an honest attempt to address a serious problem.”
Abortion’s Absence No Accident
On the other hand, the absence from Harper’s plan of any component related to abortion access was not an accident, Redekop added. “It’s consistent with this government’s beliefs.”
Pro-life beliefs are not the same, however, as pro-life priorities. “This government does not put a high priority on restricting abortions in this country,” said Redekop.
Any move by a minority Tory government to restrict abortion would see the other parties coalesce in opposition and bring the government down. Even if Harper got a majority, it wouldn’t take action because the Supreme Court of Canada is so pro-abortion, said Redekop: “No legislation would be sustained.”
Added Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer with Canada’s Campaign Life Coalition, “The irony here is that the prime minister says he’s going to do something about maternal and child health in the Third World, but he’s afraid to do anything about abortion at home, which is how 100,000 Canadian unborn children die each year.”
But Douglas gives Harper credit. “He was trying to do a good thing that would make everybody happy, like any politician,” she said. “And everyone but the Liberals were happy.”
Why did Ignatieff object? Douglas’ sources within the Liberal caucus say Ignatieff was put up to it by the party’s women’s caucus. The considerably smaller group of pro-life Liberal ministers of Parliament “was never even consulted before Ignatieff made his statement.”
Douglas says public opinion will have to change to favor restrictions on abortions before any government will have the nerve to put them in place. “The problem is we have a captive press here in Canada. We can’t change public opinion if the news media ignore us. Eighty thousand Canadians will protest across Canada in May when we have our March for Life — and nobody will report it.”
It is ironic, says Douglas, that the news media’s coverage of Ignatieff’s “reproductive rights” gambit has mostly been negative.
Harper’s Alleged ‘Hidden Agenda’
Most media pundits speculated that Ignatieff hoped to raise the specter of Harper’s alleged “hidden agenda” to recriminalize abortion with Canada’s voters, who favor a woman’s “right to choose” but also some restrictions on abortion.
Some wondered if Ignatieff hoped to trigger inflammatory comments from the more devoutly pro-life members of Harper’s caucus: If so, the hopes were dashed as the Conservatives kept a disciplined silence while Ignatieff attempted to backpedal.
Even fellow Liberal Minister of Parliament Keith Martin, a physician, undermined his leader’s gambit:
“It would be a shame,” said Martin, “if the debate about abortion hijacks the larger issue of what we can do very simply to enable pregnant women to be able to deliver safely.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.