Paul Tuns:

Brian Mulroney died last month at the age of 84 to widespread praise among politicians of all stripes despite leading what was the most scandal-plagued and unpopular government by the time he resigned. Three decades after leaving office in disgrace, he was lauded for his public service, Canada’s free trade agreement with the United States, and his environmental record. Not mentioned in the hosannahs for the former prime minister was his response to the Morgentaler decision and attempt to effectively legalize abortion-on-demand in Canada.

In January 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Morgentaler that therapeutic abortion committees violated the security of the person (of women seeking abortions), but did not rule there was a right to abortion. The Court said Parliament could still regulate abortion, and the government introduced a bill that would allow easy access to abortion in the first trimester and criminalize most late-term abortions; that bill was defeated in a 76-147 vote opposed by both pro-life and pro-abortion MPs.

House rules prevented the same matter from being reintroduced during the same Parliament’s sitting and there was an election in the fall of 1988. The Mulroney government did not submit new abortion legislation until early 1990, C-43.

C-43, if passed, would have allowed abortion in cases to protect the life or health of the mother. The bill made clear that “health” of the mother included physical, emotional, or psychological reasons, which most pro-lifers at the time stated would not effectively limit abortion, as an accompanying guideline to the bill noted that “social and economic” reasons would be included as reasons to obtain an abortion.

While C-43 would have placed abortion in the Criminal Code, Campaign Life Coalition said at the time that the criminal sanctions would only ever apply when non-medical professionals committed abortions, and that by placing the law in the Criminal Code, risked preventing provinces from regulating abortion under health legislation. Justice Minister Kim Campbell wrote to the Canadian Medical Association to assure them that no medical doctor would ever be prosecuted under C-43’s provisions. C-43 was opposed by Alliance for Life, Campaign Life Coalition, Physicians for Life, and REAL Women, as well as the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

In May 1990, the House of Commons voted 140-131 to approve C-43, and The Interim reported at the time, “The government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stomped on every attempt to tighten the bill even to the point of forbidding its own Parliamentary Committee to introduce amendments after holding eight weeks of hearings on the issue.” Mulroney also ordered all cabinet ministers and their parliamentary secretaries to support the bill and strong-armed backbenchers with threats to their political careers. Rob Nicholson, the parliamentary secretary to then-Justice Minister Kim Campbell, spoke out against C-43 and voted against it, but other ostensibly pro-life politicians such as Energy Minister Jake Epp and Industry Minister Benoit Bouchard, both supported C-43.

In the Senate, pro-life Liberal Senator Stanley Haidasz waged what then-CLC president Jim Hughes called “a one-man pro-life battle against Bill C-43.” Haidasz lobbied his fellow senators and arranged for pro-life testimony before the select Senate committee on abortion, which had heard from many pro-abortion groups but only three pro-life organizations. Due to Haidasz’s intervention, CLC, REAL Women, then-Interim editor Fr. Alphonse de Valk, philosophy professor and Interim columnist Donald DeMarco and former U.S. abortionist-turned-pro-life-activist Dr. Bernard Nathanson all addressed the committee. Fr. de Valk said that a vote for C-43 would enshrine legal abortion statutorily, and that Parliament should defeat the bill and vote on a law that protected preborn children.

In all, the Senate heard from 38 individuals and organizations, of which only four supported C-43. When the full Senate voted, the bill was defeated on a tie vote, 43-43, after Senator Gil Molgat, who was to be the speaker for that day (January 31), exchanged his seat in order to vote against the bill.

The Interim reported in July 1990 that “Mr. Mulroney is a fluently bilingual Irish Quebecker. He is a Catholic, like his predecessors Pierre Trudeau (Liberal Prime Minister, 1968-1984), Joe Clark (Conservative Prime Minister for nine months in 1979), and John Turner (Liberal Prime Minister for six weeks in 1984). Like the others, he has stoutly ignored all arguments against abortion and its legalization, whether biological, philosophical, sociological or theological, all the while claiming or pretending to be a personally opposed.”

Jim Hughes told The Interim that Mulroney’s abortion bill was opposed at the time by everyone who saw that it “was pretending to ban abortion when its mental health and social exceptions would have effectively permitted any request for an abortion.” Hughes explained that abortion is permitted by the vacuum created by the lack of a law, and that “the estimated 3 million babies killed by abortion since the defeat of C-43 is Brian Mulroney’s true legacy.”