Three of five candidates pro-abortion, while Clement and Flaherty send mixed signals
It did not take long for abortion to become an issue in the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership campaign – just long enough, in fact, for the media to ask the first announced candidate about his views on the issue during his kick-off press conference.
Unfortunately, it was became an issue not because one of the leadership hopefuls had made a courageous and principled stand in defence of innocent human life. It was because the media is less interested in reporting than in ideologically dividing the contenders into “respectable” and “moderate” candidates on the one hand and (a la the Macleans cover about Stockwell Day) the “scary” and “extreme” social conservatives on the other.
For the first few weeks of the race, reporters dutifully asked each candidate where he or she stood on abortion, hoping, certainly, to illustrate to Ontario voters that his or her extremism spoke for itself. If it didn’t, the idea was to be drilled into the electorate.
As Campaign Life Coalition president Jim Hughes reminded his organization’s supporters in the CLC National News, “The funny thing about the Tory leadership candidates is that each of them has, at one time or another, uttered pro-life statements to some degree, although at least three of the five have declared themselves to be now ‘pro-choice’.”
The day the first candidate, former finance minister and deputy premier Ernie Eves, jumped into the ring, he recounted how he proud he was for breaking with his party (the only Tory to do so) in the 1980s over public funding of private abortuaries. He defended his pro-abortion position, saying, “I am someone who is fiscally responsible with a large social conscience.” He added he could not abide by his party’s (then) stand against public funding of abortion, because the issue is a matter of personal conscience.
Eves has remained steadfast in his pro-abortion views. The National Post quoted him as complaining after the Canadian Alliance’s failure to make a big breakthrough in Ontario in the 2000 federal election. Eves said the CA should abandon its social conservatism on life issues and homosexuality. “I don’t think that you can convince most Ontarians to adopt a social-conservative agenda,” he said.
The last candidate to announce his intention to run, Labour Minister Chris Stockwell, said he is “pro-choice.” As the CLC National News noted, “Generally, reporters have not dogged him in the way the pro-life (or at least marginally pro-life) candidates are questioned.”
Jim Flaherty, the current finance minister and deputy premier, jumped into the race the same day Witmer did. Less than two weeks earlier, on the day Eves announced his leadership bid and declared himself pro-abortion, Flaherty had stated he is “pro-life.” The Toronto Sun reported Flaherty as saying, “I am pro-life. I’m on record in that regard,” although he added that he considered abortion a federal issue, especially the “funding of abortion services.”
Yet, days after announcing he would be a candidate, Flaherty distanced himself from his previous pro-life statements. He told the press that, “I would not interfere with the status quo in Ontario (on the question of abortion).” He said he would maintain funding and the injunction against peaceful pro-life witnessing outside abortuaries.
Following the last federal election, Flaherty had joined other social conservatives, such as Bob Runciman, in criticizing the Alliance’s position on homosexuality and its refusal to rule out a referendum on abortion. He said most Ontarians are more concerned with fiscal issues than social issues. Flaherty also helped Premier Mike Harris usher in same-sex rights through Bill 5 in 1999.
The next candidate to enter the race – and the abortion fray – was Health Minister Tony Clement, who waffled. Despite answering pro-life to all but one of the questions CLC sent out in a 1995 questionnaire (he said he would not support efforts to defund abortion), Clement has danced around the issue since becoming a candidate for the party leadership. He said there are cases where women have a right to an abortion and other cases where they do not, but refused repeated requests by Steve Paikin of the TV2 television program to elaborate on the question of in what circumstances abortion would be permissible. Instead of offering specifics, he answered that, “I’m probably a six or seven on a scale of one to 10 on pro-life, pro-choice,” with 10 signifying fully “pro-life” and one meaning fully “pro-abortion.” Elizabeth WitmerMost disappointing, Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer reversed her previous replies to CLC questionnaires and declared herself “pro-choice.” Questioned by reporters on the issue, she said, “I believe it is up to each individual, and I respect the decision that each woman will make in this regard.” This was a huge flip-flop from her response to CLC’s 1995 questionnaire, in which she said she believed life begins at conception, was against abortion on demand and the tax funding of abortion clinics, and supported a referendum to decide the issue of defunding abortion.