Commentary Paul Tuns
The Interim

Abortion was thrust upon the national stage during the federal election campaign after party leaders and the media lambasted Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s pro-life position and the party’s pro-referendum policy.

Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes told The Interim, “Abortion has always been discussed at the door but is usually stifled at the upper levels,” during an election campaign. He said he was happy the topic of abortion was prominent but would have preferred the debate to centre on the truth of the humanity of the child in the womb. “When abortion came up it was because the other party leaders said it shouldn’t be discussed or the media was inquiring about Day’s views. There was no actual debate about what abortion is.”

Abortion wasn’t even on the political radar screen until Prime Minister Jean Chretien addressed the Quebec women’s wing of the Liberal Party on November 5. Chretien said Day’s support of holding a referendum on abortion was tantamount to imposing his personal views on the country, adding it would be wrong to re-open the debate. He said, “We have had social peace in Canada on the question of abortion,” since the 1988 Supreme Court decision striking down Canada’s abortion law. (The National Post’s Andrew Coyne remarked, “The ‘social peace’ Mr. Chretien celebrates merely expresses the contentment of one segment of the population, those who favour absolute freedom of choice on abortion, at any point in the pregnancy.”)

Day often seemed defensive about reopening the abortion debate although he never hid his pro-life beliefs. During a November 6 news conference he said he didn’t feel the public was interested in a referendum on abortion.

While the media and leaders talked a lot about abortion, it didn’t seem to be priority for voters. Michael Adams and Chris Baker, president and vice-president respectively of Environics Research Group Ltd., said in a November 23 Globe and Mail column that their polls indicated abortion is not on the minds of Canadians despite unusually large coverage of abortion by the media and attention by the leaders compared to previous elections. Adams and Baker criticized Day for “insinuating” the “wedge issue” into the campaign.

But other observers saw that it was Chretien who raised abortion as a deliberate election ploy in a desperate attempt to scare voters away from the CA. The National Post’s Ottawa bureau chief Robert Fife wrote, “Advisors to the Prime Minister believe they have neutralized Mr. Day’s ability to set the agenda and make inroads in Ontario, Quebec or the Atlantic provinces by painting him as a Western extremist with a ‘hidden agenda’ on abortion, gays, capital punishment and health care.”

By the time of the leaders debates, abortion was a prominent topic of discussion, as to whether or not the issue should be re-opened for debate through the CA-supported referendum process. During the November 9 English debate all four of the other party leaders – Chretien, the Progressive Conservatives’ Joe Clark, the NDP’s Alexa McDonough and the Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe – criticized Day for wanting to re-open the abortion debate. Tory leader Joe Clark said the debate has been “settled” in favour of abortion while Chretien took the contradictory view that the issue is both settled and too divisive to have a public debate. McDonough said it is “absolutely outrageous that [Day] thinks he can subject my right to choose, my right to make reproductive choices, my right to control the decisions affecting my body to a referendum.”

Day responded to the attacks by reiterating that a CA government would not draft the question or push the issue but merely allow citizens to initiative referenda. He repeatedly said he had no intention of “imposing” his views on the country.

No matter how often Day repeated this line, the liberal media would not accept it. On November 15, Globe and Mail columnist William Johnson summed up the media’s disbelief that Day would not advance some sort of abortion agenda. “Everyone knows that, the day after Mr. Day is elected prime minister, there’ll be a petition book opened at the back of every Roman Catholic church, every evangelical prayer hall in the land … [with priests] scourging them into righteous outrage against the slaughter of the innocent in the womb. Abortion will be the first order of business, even before the new government has passed the bill introducing citizen-inspired referendums.”

In their zeal to continue the abortion-referendum controversy, some in the media went as far as to misrepresent Campaign Life Coalition’s stand on the use referenda in deciding moral issues. A Southam report said the organization supported the CA referendum policy. Hughes explained to The Interim that during the course of a lengthy and wide-ranging interview, the reporter repeatedly returned to the issue of deciding moral issues by referenda. Hughes said he reiterated CLC’s position that Parliament must act to recriminalize abortion. “The reporter presented a hypothetical situation of an already arranged national referendum on abortion and asked how would CLC respond,” Hughes said. “We stated that CLC would support any legitimate measure that reduces the number of abortions but emphasized we oppose referenda as a way of resolving the life and death issue of abortion.”

Hughes said if the CA wants the support of pro-lifers, it must commit to protecting the unborn, that it cannot depend upon a referendum process.

But CLC British Columbia president John Hof thought it was time pro-lifers put their energies behind one party. He said the political division of the pro-life movement “allows the Alliance to ignore us.” He said if pro-lifers were united behind the CA – and refused to compromise their principles – “there would be no room for the party to distance themselves from us or explain us away.”

Hof said splitting support for the parties weakens political pro-life activism as activists fail to reach a critical mass within any one party. He said the dynamic could work to bring the CA closer to a solidly pro-life position if the party was given time.

Hughes said CLC remains committed to supporting individual pro-life candidates because only through getting enough pro-life MPs, regardless of party, will legislation that protects the unborn ever be enacted.

Despite the disappointing lack of commitment to the pro-life position and reliance on referenda many pro-lifers feel about the CA, the abortion lobby is afraid of the party and its leader. On November 21 abortionist Henry Morgentaler and the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL) held a joint press conference and in an unprecedented move supported the Liberal Party in order to defeat the CA. Morgentaler said Chretien’s repeated promises to support abortion has led the Liberal Party to be considered “a pro-choice party.”

In a CLC press release, Hughes asked why Morgentaler, CARAL and pro-abortion political leaders fear a debate. He told The Interim, “They fear support for abortion will decline even further once the truth about abortion is known.” Hughes also condemned the assertion by CARAL and Morgentaler that Canadians are “pro-choice.” Polling data shows few people support the status quo of lawlessness with respect to abortion.

Some pundits saw abortion as the CA albatross, especially in Ontario. But COMPAS and Gallup polls taken in the last year both showed Ontario to be no more liberal on abortion than the country as a whole; indeed, COMPAS showed a slightly higher pro-life sentiment and slightly lower support for abortion compared to country as a whole. Both new CA MPs in Ontario are pro-life (as are their three new MPs in B.C.) .

Hughes said Canadians would appreciate a leader who clearly stated his pro-life position. He said if Day had not at times seemed ashamed of his pro-life views, the CA might have done better in rural and small-town Ontario. “It’s a winning issue. People like politicians who tell it like it is.”