Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals legalized abortion and homosexuality in the late 1960s. The last time abortion was a serious political issue in Canada was twenty years ago when the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney introduced a bill that would limit abortion. The bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the Senate. Since then, abortion has hardly made an appearance in Parliament nor has it been a central feature of political campaigns. However, in the last few years, a growing unrest among mostly Conservative, but also a small minority of Liberal Party members have pushed to reopen the question of abortion. According to a recent Dec. 21st Globe and Mail article, a Conservative backbencher, Stephen Woodworth, is seeking to reopen the issue of abortion. However, the question does not directly implicate “abortion” and in the press, it seems the term is largely avoided. Rather, as Woodworth stated in a press conference, “… the Canadian statute that defines a human being as someone who is completely separate from the mother’s body has its roots in British legal treatises written in the 17th century. The important question, he said, is whether a 400-year-old law is supported by 21st-century medical science and principles of human rights.”
Canadians were unsure of the new Conservatives in Canada (giving them two minority governments before handing them a majority) – a probationary period of sorts. Harper promised Canadians in his campaigns (and as Prime Minister) that as long as he is Prime Minister, the abortion issue would not be reopened. And, there might be evidence that Harper was keeping his word. According to the Globe and Mail article, “reports that trickled out of the federal Conservative caucus after the party won a majority government last spring suggested that Mr. Harper had warned his MPs he did not want backbench moves to reopen the abortion issue.” Yet in a Dec. 13th Globe and Mail article, former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien warned that gay marriage and abortion (among other issues, including Kyoto and even the death penalty which has not been dealt with seriously since the 80s) will be “on the chopping block.”
On the other hand, there are some who believe that Harper did know about this push from within his party to reopen abortion. According to the Dec. 21st article, “Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Mr. Harper “is the most controlling prime minister we have ever known” and there is no way that a backbench MP like Mr. Woodworth could issue a press release without his knowledge.”
Interestingly, when the Conservatives still held a minority government, they threatened to reopen the Civil Marriage Act which legalized gay marriage in Canada. They did not do so perhaps because a poll that was taken a few months after the law was passed showed that Canadians, although split on the issue of gay marriage, thought the issue was closed and should not be reopened. Indeed, throughout that period, Canadians consistently ranked gay marriage and abortion among the least important issues facing the country. Has the public changed its mind? In 2001, a Léger poll found that 47% of Canadians said they were “for” abortion and in March of 2010, an Ekos poll found that 52% of Canadians identified as “pro-choice.” A 2010 Angus-Reid Poll also showed that 30% of Canadians think the issue of abortion should be reopened (but 44% of Canadians believe abortions unconditionally should be funded by the healthcare system). Canadians also do not appear to have become more conservative on gay marriage.
So why is this happening and is this the beginning of a culture war? Scholars have argued that an important reason why abortion is a political issue in the US (and which distinguishes the US from other western countries) is that political elites have not helped close the issue, creating an opportunity for continued political debate and mobilization on the part of the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements. Is this a new political opportunity for Conservative “values” issues that have been repressed for the last 20 years in Canada? Now that Conservatives have a majority government, they may wish to appeal to their minority base. There is evidence that the Campaign Life Coalition – a pro-life organization in Canada – has been pressuring the Conservatives, holding a right-to-life march earlier this year (see Political Points Blog, May 13, 2011). A mobilized opposition against abortion might convince even a reluctant conservative Prime Minister, and provide resources and the motivation for others in the government, to reopen the issue. Is this a new political opportunity for other social issues, as former Prime Minster Chrétien seems to be suggesting? As an aside, the Conservatives are pushing for a comprehensive crime bill (C-10) reminiscent of the “war on crime” and “get tough” politics in the US. Unlike abortion and gay marriage though, there is evidence to suggest that Canadians are increasingly supportive of a “get tough” approach on crime and of capital punishment (see Globe and Mail, Jan. 2010). Will Conservative political entrepreneurs make these the issues of the 2010’s and what does this mean for social movements?