Maternal health: What does “no debate on abortion” mean?

by Paul Wells

Well, everyone was so chuffed after Question Period, because at last the government had got its message straight viz-a-viz the whole maternal health initiative!

To wit: “We are not closing the door to any option, and that includes contraceptives,” the prime minister said in so many words. Bev Oda said precisely the same words: “As we have been saying all along, we are not closing the door on any options that will save the lives of mothers and children, including contraception.”

Got it. No doors closed, including to contraception. But what about abortion? Here, too, the language was peculiar and meticulously deployed. Harper: “But we do not want a debate, here or elsewhere, on abortion.” Oda: “And as we have been saying all along, we are not opening the abortion debate.”

Well, what the hell does that mean?

Julie O’Neill’s story, the second one I link above, seems to take “we do not want a debate on abortion” to mean “we do not want abortion.” That would certainly be one way to read it, probably the obvious way. In fact John Ibbitson’s story, the first linked above, says that’s how Lawrence Cannon reads it: Ibbitson says that on one of the chat shows later this afternoon, Cannon “insisted that this government would not fund new family planning initiatives that include the option of abortion, though other G8 governments might choose to do otherwise.”

You’ll forgive me for not taking Lawrence Cannon’s interpretation of anything as reliable.

Rather, I think this is more telling. At least since 2005, when Stephen Harper says he does not want to re-open the debate on abortion, he has always meant he did not want to limit access to abortion where it is now available. See for yourself. “Throughout his political career, the prime minister has been clear on this issue,” Dimitri Soudas, Harper’s spokesman, said in December 2008. “We will not introduce or support legislation on abortion.”

In this story from the same time, he’s far more categorical:

“I’ve been clear throughout my entire political career. I don’t intend to open the abortion issue. I haven’t in the past. I’m not going to in the future. Yes, there will be people in the Conservative Party who wish I would and there are some in the Liberal Party who also wish I would. But I have not done that in my entire political career, don’t intend to start now. We have a lot of challenges in front of the country … That has to be the focus of government. And I simply have no intention of ever making that a focus, the abortion question a focus of my political career.”

On Jan. 18, 2006, Harper said, “I don’t want this Parliament to have an abortion debate.” I’m sure industrious readers can find other examples. I can find no instance where Harper spoke of avoiding an abortion debate to mean restricting abortions where they are now provided.

Today, in prepared and rehearsed lines used by himself and another minister, Harper used the same language he has always used when he was setting out to disappoint his pro-life base while seeking to calm pro-choice voters.

I take the prime minister to be saying he will contemplate any accord that includes access to contraception or abortion. But I don’t think it’s possible to be certain, so I think he will have to be asked again.




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