National Affairs Rory Leishman

Every year since 1976, the United States Congress has adopted the “Hyde Amendment,” a legislative enactment banning the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest or danger to the life of  the mother. In addition, most of the states likewise ban public funding for abortions.

Within the United States, these measures have widespread public support. In a typical nationwide survey conducted last year, the independent Quinnipiaq polling organization found that 67 per cent of respondents opposed public funding for abortions in the medicare reforms proposed by President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, neither the Parliament of Canada nor any of the provincial legislatures has placed any restrictions on the use of public funds for abortions. Why is that?

It is not for want of trying. In 1991, the Progressive Conservative government of Saskatchewan led by former premier Grant Devine authorized the inclusion of a referendum on abortion funding in the next provincial election. In the balloting, 63 per cent voted to terminate public funding for abortion in Saskatchewan.

But alas, the Devine government was defeated in the election and the incoming New Democratic Party government refused to follow the direction of the people on the pretence that eliminating funding for abortion under medicare would violate the equality rights of Saskatchewan women under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a fanciful argument that has never been tested in court.

In 1996, Garry Breitkreuz, Reform Party member for the Saskatchewan riding of Yorkton-Melville, introduced a motion in Parliament calling for a binding national referendum on abortion funding. In 1999 and again in 2002, Breitkreuz’s pro-life colleague Jim Pankiw (Reform Party — Saskatoon- Humbolt) followed up with a private members’ bill mandating a national referendum on abortion funding.

In view of national polling data and the outcome in the 1991 Saskatchewan referendum, there is good reason to believe that the restrictions on abortion proposed in the referenda advanced by Breitkreuz and Pankiw would have been popular. However, the Liberal governments headed by former prime ministers Jean Chretien (1993-2003) and Paul Martin (2003-2006) were so ideologically committed to abortion on demand that they dared not put the question of abortion funding to the people of Canada in a referendum.

What about Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper? During the current election campaign, he has vowed that his government will not introduce any measures to restrict abortions or eliminate same-sex “marriages,” even if the Conservatives win a majority government. In a discussion with reporters on April 4, he said these “are not the positions of the party. They’re not in the Conservative platform. I have no intention of opening up those issues.”

Note that while Harper says he has no intention of personally addressing the abortion issue and has indicated that his government will not take any initiative in this area, he has not promised to oppose any attempt by some backbench or opposition MP to introduce a Parliamentary debate on abortion by means of a private member’s bill or motion. That’s not much, but it leaves at least a small opening for pro-life MPs inside and outside the Conservative Party.

Last July, AngusReid found that only 44 per cent of a national sample of Canadians favoured full public funding for abortion; 39 per cent supported funding only “in the event of medical emergencies;” while 10 per cent backed a total ban on all federal funding for abortion. This same poll found that only 21 per cent of respondents were aware that under Canadian law, “a woman can have an abortion at any time during her pregnancy, with no restrictions whatsoever.”

A referendum is a powerful tool for educating voters. If a referendum on abortion funding were to get underway in Canada, chances are that as more and more Canadians considered the issue, the proportion opposed to the current regime of full funding for abortion on demand would rise dramatically.

Breitkreuz and Pankiw were on to a good idea. Pro-lifers in the next Parliament, be they Conservatives, Liberals or members of any other party, would do well to focus part of their efforts on reviving the proposal for a national referendum that would mandate Parliament to restrict federal funding for abortion.