Officially, the pro-life movement does not endorse Reform, but, quietly many disillusioned pro-lifers will be pinning their hopes on Manning.
Preston Manning considers himself staunchly pro-life. But if the leader of the Reform Party gets elected in his Calgary riding and goes to Ottawa, the views of this pro-life politician could never see the light of day.
He will be bound by party policy which strictly commands him to go back to his constituency and seek the direction of the people before returning to Parliament and voting accordingly. What makes the party attractive to many Canadians, its radical populism, could force its candidates to vote against their consciences on crucial matters like abortion or euthanasia.
It’s no secret that pro-lifers are moving in droves to the Reform Party, convinced they have found a place to vent their frustrations with the mainline parties. They feel sure it is the only real alternative. They say the Reform position on abortion, although flawed, is better than any other and they plan to vote accordingly.
Reformers, including Manning, argue that Canadians are overwhelmingly pro-life and faced with a properly worded referendum would vote that way.
But one Vancouver lawyer, who flirted with Reform and tried to run as a Reform candidate in the last election, says the party position on abortion is dangerous. Paul Formby, a long time activist with Campaign Life Coalition, was set to run as the Reform candidate in Burnaby-Kingsway prior to the last federal election before his attempt was quashed.
“I had to get permission from the higher-ups,” Formby recalls. “Word came down I would not be suitable. I had to follow the dictates of the constituents on moral issues.” Forced to give up the candidacy, he watched the election from the side-lines.
Formby says the fact he was a high-profile political activist with CLC probably hurt him more with the “higher-ups” in Reform than his pro-life views. Even so, he now calls a pro-life vote for Reform “irresponsible.”
“I’ve got a very major obstacle to joining Reform.” He says now that another election approaches and the party is poised to make a definite breakthrough, especially in Western Canada. He says his problem with Reform stems from “the way they have, in the name of democracy, nullified the conscience of the candidates.”
Briefly stated, the Reform Party platform says it’s up to the electorate to decide moral issues like abortion or capital punishment. The consensus in the riding would determine how the candidate would vote on an abortion law. If Reform were in power there would be a law in place which would require a referendum before major pieces of legislation were passed. If there were no such legislation the Reform MPs would be obliged to go to their constituencies to determine the consensus of the electorate. If there is no consensus and no referendum process in place, the candidate could vote according to his or her previously stated position.
In 1991 the party released what it called a “Caucus Issue Statement” which proposes “to place more decision-making power into the hands of the people.” The paper states major issues such as constitutional proposals and moral and ethical issues would be put to a vote. But it adds “if no consensus exists, members are expected to vote in accordance with their previous statements on the issue.”
The Reform Party has found another candidate, 25 year-old John Carpay, to run in the same riding Formby tried to represent. Burnaby-Kingsway is currently held by New Democrat Svend Robinson but Carpay feels he can give the radical MP a run for his money.
Carpay considers himself pro-life but says “it is better things be decided democratically. We’re better off having the majority decide things as opposed to having an elite which is anti-freedom and anti-life.”
He freely admits many Reform candidates – perhaps up to half, he estimates – are pro-abortion, so he counsels pro-life voters to decide in their own ridings which candidates are the best.
“Being pro-life is not an obstacle,” to running as a Reform candidate he contends. He won the nomination in Burnaby over two other candidates. He was the only one who was openly pro-life although he admits he did not make it a major part of his campaign.
Reform currently has one member elected, Deborah Grey, from Beaver River, Alberta. During the vote on Bill C-43, the last federal attempt at abortion legislation, she “conducted the closest thing that I could to a referendum in my riding.” This poll found 60 per cent of the respondents in her riding pro-life and so she voted accordingly, against the bill.
But if her riding had been pro-abortion, theoretically she would have had to have voted the other way, against her conscience.
Grey has said “My personal position on abortion is rooted in my Evangelical Christian faith.” Religion, she says, plays an important part in her life, as it does with many Reformers, including the leader Preston Manning. Manning does not mention his faith much in public but it is key to winning support among his fellow Evangelicals.
The shift among Christian pro-lifers to the Reform Party infuriates people like Heather Stilwell, leader of the Christian Heritage Party, Canada’s only officially pro-life party. She calls the idea of putting a question like abortion on a referendum “such nonsense. You don’t hear anybody saying let’s have a referendum on rape.”
She says in the early days of the Reform Party, organizers approached the CHP and proposed that the join two forces.
“The bottom line for us was we need the protection of human life enshrined in the political party,” she says. “They went ashen.” The two parties went their separate ways and are now trying to attract the same people.
Mary Turner, a worker at the crisis pregnancy centre said in her Baptist church she knows a number of people who are voting Reform. She herself was actively considering the party because “I feel desperate about the whole (abortion) issue,” she says. But she recently learned of Reform’s position on abortion and says she has changed her mind.
“You don’t put moral issues to a referendum,” she says. “You cannot make murder that kind of an issue.”
But Gloria Lawrenson, a pro-life activist and an Evangelical Christian contends that Reform is the way to go.
“I’m voting Reform,” she says proudly. “I’m totally disillusioned with the other parties.” She adds that many of her Christian friends feel the same way and plan to work for pro-life Reform candidates.
She says she doesn’t have a problem with taking a pro-life question to the Canadian people.
“If the educational movement were doing its job in educating people then the overwhelming majority of Canadians would vote pro-life,” she says.
Betty MacDonald, a Reform organizer working out of the Ottawa office defends the referendum requirement even though she admits she is pro-life and it could mean pro-lifers would be forced to vote against their consciences.
“This is democracy,” she says. “What right has a member of Parliament to decide for you and me?”