A social conservative assessment

The Harper government gets a pass on social issues but a fail on abortion.

Stephen Harper, the Liberals like to tell us, has a hidden agenda. Deep down in his black heart of hearts he wants to ban abortion. Yet, for nearly two decades, Campaign Life Coalition has rated him as “pro-abortion” or “not pro-life,” based on his public statements, CLC questionnaires he returned, and voting record. I’d like to be able to tell you that the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I’m afraid I cannot.

When he ran for MP in 1993, he answered the CLC questionnaire saying he would represent the views of his constituents and that having already surveyed them on the issue, he said they supported legal abortion but also defunding. CLC rated him pro-abortion. That may seem tough, but Harper’s view was little different than the “personally pro-life” line pro-abortion politicians use; if someone is going to support the continuing permissive abortion status quo, Campaign Life Coalition is going to (correctly) rate that person as pro-abortion.

In 2002, when running for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Harper like all the leadership hopefuls said he was pro-life but – too often there is a but – he said the issue should be settled by a citizen-initiated referendum and that he would not stand in the way of MPs putting private members’ bills forward, but that he did not think the party or a government he led should initiate legislation on abortion. “I do not believe this party, as a party, can be focused on the abortion issue. As leader, I am not going to focus this party on the abortion issue or on the leader’s personal moral and religious views.”

Harper has spent much of his political career actively avoiding the abortion issue. Indeed, in a special five-year anniversary interview he told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, “I have spent my political career trying to stay out of that issue.”

At a March 2005 Conservative Party convention in Montreal, Harper maneuvered to scuttle a resolution that said, “a Conservative government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.” In every election he has said he has no intention of re-opening the abortion issue, although he subtly shifted his position in the closing days of the 2006 election: “The Conservative government won’t be initiating or supporting abortion legislation and I’ll use whatever influence I have in Parliament to be sure that such a matter doesn’t come up for a vote.” In 2008, one the eve of an election call, he had Justice Minister Rob Nicholson scuttle a private member’s bill that would have recognized the unborn child as a second victim in an attack on a pregnant woman. Last year, he voted against C-510, a private member’s bill that would protect women against coerced abortion.

The one thing that might have sent mixed signals was the government’s highly laudable G8 Maternal and Child Health Initiative which promoted a strategy to lower maternal and child mortality rates by focusing on nutrition, clean water, and safe delivery of newborns but that excluded funding abortion worldwide. The Liberals put forth a motion to require the government fund abortion through its maternal health initiative, but it was defeated in Parliament. The opposition leaders and pro-abortion feminists pointed to the policy as proof of Harper’s frightening hidden pro-life agenda.

Because the Conservative government did not include abortion as part of one specific maternal health program – a program endorsed by Canada’s G8 partners and pro-abortion outfits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation –  the Liberals included supposed Harper backtracking on a promise to not “regulate abortion” as part of its list of 145 “broken promises” by the Conservatives. One would have reasonably assumed that Harper was talking about abortion and the criminal law and not abortion funding overseas.

As preoccupied with avoiding the abortion issue as Stephen Harper is, the opposition parties are obsessed with trying to paint Harper as an anti-choice zealot who just wants a majority so he can recriminalize abortion. Liberal House leader David McGuinty that Harper’s CBC denial about wanting to re-open the abortion issue was disingenuous: “I don’t think Mr. Harper can be trusted on significant issues like abortion.” NDP leader Jack Layton said Harper’s interview did not give him “a lot of comfort” on what the Prime Minister might do about abortion if he was elected with a majority.

It does not help that Harper is trying to have it both ways: he needs his social conservative base to vote for him, but he is being advised to not offend middle-of-the-road voters who may not like the abortion-on-demand status quo but seem to have little interest in a public and political debate on abortion. We might find that bad advice, but no doubt that is the political fence Harper is straddling. I have no idea what the Prime Minister’s own views are on abortion, but it seems fair to say that his primary agenda is to get re-elected and that the political calculation he has made (all his life, by his own admission) is to avoid the issue as much as possible. If he ever gets that elusive majority, he eyes would not turn toward restricting or banning abortion but the next election.

In 2006, Harper told Global anchor Kevin Newman that his views on abortion were “complex” and that he did not “fall into any of the neat polar extremes on this issue.” National Post columnist Fr. Raymond de Souza responded that there is not much middle ground between the views that abortion is “either a fundamental Charter right or a massive violation of the fundamental right to life” because either the taking of human life is wrong (the pro-life view) or it is permissible (the permissive status quo in Canada today). Not taking a stand against abortion permits the continuation of the status quo of abortion-on-demand. Yet, as Harper’s opposition to the unborn victims and anti-coercion private members’ bills illustrates, he has opposed even supporting measures that are broadly supported by pro-lifers but would not affect the abortion license one iota.

Of course, abortion is not the only issue that social conservatives care about, and on the other files, Harper’s record is significantly better but far from perfect.

For economic reasons (it seems) the government has defunded International Planned Parenthood and decreased funding for all sorts of NGOs, not just pro-abortion ones; feminist groups have cried foul about their ability to lobby which is hindering their pro-abortion advocacy. The government has also changed the mandate of the Secretariat of Women to focus on economic opportunity rather than social engineering and they defunded the Court Challenges Program that used litigation to change Canadian social policy. The Harper government has also raised the age of consent for sexual activity and has tackled human trafficking.

The issue of same-sex “marriage” is a little more complex. In the 2006 election he promised to re-open the SSM issue and have a free vote. The motion the government introduced endorsed the concept of same-sex civil unions and seemed, according to some pro-family organizations, a perfunctory exercise in pandering to his social conservative base but which was hurried and buried after its defeat. The Prime Minister and nearly every member of his caucus voted to re-open the same-sex “marriage” debate but alas not enough opposition members joined the minority government to reconsider the issue.

On euthanasia, all but one member of the Conservative government joined the vast majority of Parliament to oppose a private member’s bill that would have legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Another government might have been more open to compromise with the bill’s sponsor, Bloc Quebecois MP Francine Lalonde.

Indeed, on most issues, the Conservative government has prevented a liberalizing or broadening of immorality and decadence. There is tremendous value in that, but it is insufficient considering how much damage socially liberal laws have done to the moral fabric of Canadian society.

Overall, you’d have to give Stephen Harper’s government a passing grade on social issues, but a fail on how they have handled abortion. If you were grading on a curve taking into account the opposition parties and leaders, Harper and the Conservatives look even better. But social conservatives in general and pro-lifers in particular, should not be a cheap political date and we must demand more from our political leaders. We should, as this paper noted after the 2008 federal election, avoid putting all our hope in a particular party or politician.

Harper may be better than the current alternatives, but that should not give him or his party a free pass for low-balling what he and his government ought to be doing (or undoing) on social issues – especially when it comes to the protection of unborn children