The motion of Dr. Gus Mitges (Grey-Simcoe) asking the House of Commons to consider amending Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to explicitly guarantee the right to life of the unborn was voted upon at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, June 2. The motion was lost by a recorded vote of 62 in favour and 89 against, a difference of 27 votes.
A disappointed Dr. Mitges summed up the feelings of pro-life MPs outside the House of Commons following the vote. “We’ve lost the battle, but we haven’t lost the war,” he stated.
Alliance for Life, Campaign Life and Coalition for Life representatives indicated that they are not disheartened by the vote, as many thousands of pro-life Canadians are now much more politically aware than before the vote. The groups also noted that the recorded vote, the first in many years, can and will be used by the political pro-life groups to target those MPs voting against the motion and to support those voting in favour.
Two key factors in the loss of the motion appear to be the PC government’s determination to maintain the status quo on abortion in Canada, and a confusing letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stating that they did not endorse the motion. The combined effect of these actions placed extreme pressure on MPs to vote against the motion or to abstain from voting entirely. Only 62 MPs withstood these pressures, despite intense lobbying of all MPs by constituents supporting the motion.
As the final hour of debate on the motion progressed, it became apparent that the government was intent upon ensuring that the motion did not pass. Doug Lewis, Parliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister, stated the government’s position quite clearly as the first speaker of the final session: “In view of the lack of consensus for major change in the abortion law, and because the existing law strikes an acceptable balance for Canadians who hold opposing views, it is the Government’s position that it would be inappropriate to bring forth such an amendment.” And again, “Although the Government feels it is inappropriate to consider amendments to the laws dealing with therapeutic abortion now, the debate on this motion has been an important airing of views.”
This government intervention was somewhat at odds with the spirit of Private Members’ Business as a forum for government backbenchers and opposition Members to bring forth their concerns. However, the strength of the government’s opposition was not shown until the actual vote took place, as regular Commons watchers were startled to see 11 Cabinet Minister enter the House to vote against this Private Members’ Motion.
As the Speaker declared the results of the voice vote, Joe Clark, Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall were on their feet immediately to demand a recorded vote, and the bells called many negative voting MP’s into the House to ensure the motion’s defeat. These same high-ranking Cabinet Ministers had earlier lobbied many government Members to vote against the motion and many, especially those at the Parliamentary Secretary level, bowed to this pressure.’
No members of Cabinet were present to vote in favour of the motion, the obvious inference being that those who might have been disposed to vote that way could not do so and at the same time maintain government solidarity on the abortion issue. Therefore, they did not vote. Although one pro-life Cabinet Minister, Jake Epp, was seen in the House of Commons earlier in the afternoon, he left shortly before the debate and vote took place. In spite of this the vote was touted as a “free vote.”
Conservatives evenly split
Those voting in the Progressive Conservative caucus were evenly divided on the motion, registering 56 votes in favour and 55 votes against. In the NDP ranks, 21 of 29 sitting MPs were in the House and all voted against the motion, including Ed Broadbent, the only Party leader present. Six Liberals voted in favour of the motion, while 13 voted against and the remaining 21 were not in the House to vote. Of the 279 sitting Members of Parliament (3 seats are vacant), 151 voted.
Te vote on the motion led to some strange political alliances. The Hon. Barbara McDougall was seen in a tete a tete conference with NDP Member Svend Robinson, and Conservative Member Claudy Mailly joined the NDP in a rude display of cat calling while other Conservatives Members were speaking in favour of the motion. Not so strange was the victory sign flashed by NDP leader Ed Broadbent to Canadian Abortion Rights Action League members in the gallery.
Conference of Bishops
Perhaps the least understandable action leading to negative votes by MPs is a letter sent to them in February by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter signed by Rev. William Ryan and Msgr. Denis Robitaille, General Secretaries of the Conference, on behalf of the bishops. It outlines the interest of the bishops in Mitges’ motion and states their unequivocal opposition to abortion as “the deliberate taking of an innocent and most vulnerable life.”
But the last sentence of the letter states: “However, they (the bishops), do not want their position to be understood as necessarily endorsing the constitutional amendment recommended by Mr. Mitges as the most suitable means to implement this right to life of the foetus.” This incredibly ambiguous statement had most unfortunate results.
Information form Parliament Hill indicates that many Members of Parliament interpreted the statement in the negative, and saw it as an invitation to vote against the motion. As well, Doug Lewis, in his speech on the motion outlining the government’s position stated, “Much work remains to be done before we could consider a resolution to provide constitutional protection for the rights of the unborn. Even proponents of this objective have unresolved concerns. For example, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has not endorsed this motion as the most suitable means to implement the right to life of the foetus.”
Even pro-abortion mp Svend Robinson (Burnaby), used the letter to his advantage, as his correspondence on the motion states: “I have recently received a letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops restating their position on abortion. The bishops’ position on this issue is very clear, but they did stop short of endorsing Mr. Mitges’ motion since they had questions as to whether this was the most suitable means of attaining their goals. I would agree that a constitutional amendment is not the appropriate way to proceed…”
The pro-life MPs’ chief complaint over the letter is that while it stopped short of endorsing the motion, it did not provide any explanation for the lack of endorsement, nor did it express any preferred alternative to the motion. The result therefore, was a negative interpretation by many MPs who reasoned that voting against the motion was in fact agreeing with the bishops.
In spite of the combined negative influences of the Catholic Bishops and the government, the vote shows that pro-life support in the House of Commons has grown considerably since the Constitutional Debates of 1981. At that time, a motion to consider the inclusion of the rights of the unborn child in the Charter was defeated by a vote of 60 in favour and 129 against, while only 89 MPs voted against Mitges’ motion. It is clear that the views of pro-life constituents affected many MPs and will continue to do so as further legislation to protect the unborn child is introduced.