On May 9, Ted Falk, a pro-life Conservative MP from Provencher, raised a stir in the House of Commons about abortion when he shouted at the Prime Minister that it is “not a right.” It set off a fury of indignation from Liberal and NDP members who insisted it was and that it was offensive to suggest otherwise.
NDP MP Irene Mathyssen (London Fanshawe) asked how the government would ensure “safe and equal access to abortion” which she claimed was “the right of all Canadians.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked Mathyssen for the question and reaffirmed his and his government’s support for abortion. He said “safe and easy access … to reproductive health services, including abortions, is of fundamental importance to all Canadians” and that is why his government was, “ensuring all provinces are offering that.” He concluded, “we will always be unequivocal in standing up for a woman’s right to choose.”
Last December, the Liberal government changed criteria for the Canada Summer Jobs program requiring small businesses, charities, and non-government organizations that receive subsidies from Ottawa for summer students to sign an attestation that they support Charter rights including abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Pro-life groups, faith communities, and many in the media have repeatedly stated correctly that there is no Charter right to abortion.
It was unclear on the Wednesday afternoon last month, on the day before the National March for Life, who shouted out “it is not a right,” but it was soon discovered that Falk corrected the Prime Minister on his misunderstanding. MPs were aghast and amid the banter back-and-forth, Speaker of the House Geoff Reagan had to call for order.
Several MPs rose to defend abortion and condemn Falk’s statement.
“What we have just heard is awful,” said NDP MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach (Salaberry—Suroît). the NDP deputy critic for women’s equality. “This is a right, and everyone needs to understand that,” after which she received a standing ovation from her colleagues.
Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef demanded Falk be asked to withdraw his “offensive echo” that “women do not have the right to choose.” The Speaker said the matter of abortion was still up for debate and would not rule Falk’s comment out of order: “I am afraid that this is a question of debate, and we have opportunities to have debates on this subject.”
Trudeau then rose again: “We on this side of the House, along with the NDP, understand that women unequivocally have the right to decide what to do with their bodies, and we are always going to stand up for that right, regardless of what the Conservatives think or say.”
The following day, the Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stood in the House to claim the Supreme Court of Canada declared abortion a right “30 years ago today” – mixing up the January 1988 Morgentaler decision and the passing of the Omnibus bill in May 1969. Neither the court decision nor the 1969 law created a right to abortion and, in fact, the justices in the Morgentaler decision on Jan. 28, 1988, said Parliament could legislate on abortion.
McKenna insisted that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer “denounce” Falk’s comments and commit to defending “a woman’s right to choose.” Scheer was not in the House that day as he was attending the funeral of a deceased colleague, MP Gordon Brown (Leeds-Grenville). It is also unusual for ministers to pose questions to the opposition.
The Liberal Party also used the brouhaha to send out a fundraising email. It defended abortion as a Charter Right and said Falk’s statement “is just the latest example of the Conservatives showing Canadians that they do not support women’s rights” and that Scheer “relied heavily on support from anti-choice organizations during his leadership campaign.”
Scheer lated told the CBC he talked to Falk about his statement in the House but would not publicly discuss the matter because it was an internal party issue. There is speculation in the media that Scheer has muzzled Falk. The Montreal French-language daily Le Devoir reported that several Quebec Conservative MPs such as Alain Rayes (Richmond—Athabaska) and Gerard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent) were embarrassed by Falk’s comment, telling the French press they were concerned it would be used by the party’s political opponents to paint the Tories as socially conservative. Deltell reiterated Justin Trudeau’s argument: “This right existed, exists and will always exist.”
Pro-life groups counter that abortion is not a right.
In an open letter to the Prime Minister last October, Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said, “Abortion is not a ‘Charter right’, and it is not a ‘human right’.” He noted that CLC lobbied the government to enshrine the right to life in Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “The Prime Minister at the time, your father, assured us that the Charter would have no impact on the abortion question,” Hughes wrote. He noted that Pierre Trudeau wrote a letter to Archbishop MacNeil of Edmonton in 1981, denying “the Charter will create an entitlement to abortion on demand,” citing an expert opinion from the Department of Justice which “clearly refuted” such fears. Hughes also noted that in 1981, Pierre Trudeau stated: “Because the public is evenly divided on the subject of abortion it was the government’s ‘considered view’ that a position favouring one side should not be enshrined in the charter. The Government feels the issue is not one which should be defended by the Constitution.”
Hughes said that no Canadian court has ruled there is a right to abortion, nor has the United Nations ever reached consensus that abortion is a human right.
Hughes said, “It was quite clear by the authors of the Charter and continues to be clear by the United Nations that abortion isn’t a ‘right,’ and it is unbecoming for the Prime Minister of Canada today, to deliberately utter a falsehood and to keep repeating it.”
Hughes asked Justin Trudeau to “refrain from either stating or implying that abortion is a ‘Charter right’, a ‘human right’ and is synonymous with ‘women’s rights’ as it is clearly not.”
Douglas Farrow, professor of theology and Christian thought at McGill University, wrote in Convivium, a publication of Cardus, that Trudeau was wrong in asserting abortion is a right in any way. “On the legal facts, then, Mr Falk is entirely correct and the PM and friends altogether incorrect. They are playing fast and loose with the law, both nationally and internationally.” Furthermore, after describing abortion as the “killing of an innocent human life,” Farrow says abortion, “is not a defense of rights, then, but a mortal blow to rights.”
Farrow wrote, “it is a very serious matter for the PM and other members of Parliament brazenly to misrepresent the law. It is still more serious for them to attack the foundation of rights – the inherent dignity of every human person – in the name of rights.”