Abortion and democracy

When values collide

An exchange from QP last spring, a day before Stephen Woodworth’s motion was debated in the House.

Niki Ashton. Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister promised Canadians that he would not reopen the debate on abortion. Nevertheless, that is exactly what one of his Conservative members is going to do tomorrow in the House. Canadian women have been fighting for decades for this right. Why is the Prime Minister not speaking out loudly and clearly against what his own party is trying to do here in the House?

Rob Nicholson. Mr. Speaker, the hon. member knows the rules with respect to private members’ bills. That bill will be debated as all other private members’ bills are debated in the House, in accordance with the rules of the House. I do not see why that should be a problem for the hon. member.

Niki Ashton. Mr. Speaker, during the election and in the House the Conservative government has said that it is not going to reopen the abortion debate, but that is exactly what it is doing in this very House. While other members have done this in the past, the Prime Minister has done something to stop it. This is not the case this time. He is saying one thing in the House while through the back door he is rolling back Canadian women’s rights. Will the Prime Minister stand in the House right now and tell his party that a woman’s right to choose in Canada in 2012 is not up for negotiation?

Rob Nicholson. Mr. Speaker, the government’s position has been very clear. Unlike the NDP, we do not muzzle our members as that party now does. The bill will be debated as all private members’ bills are debated.

The Justice Minister’s comments about muzzling and private members’ business are interesting in light of what has lately occurred with Mark Warawa. But Ms. Ashton’s complaints are worth parsing too. The implicit or explicit suggestion would seem to be that the Prime Minister is somehow responsible for his caucus and could have (should have?) done something to stop Motion 312 from coming forward. Or at least that the Prime Minister is accountable for what’s going on behind him.

Here is something Francoise Boivin said in a scrum earlier this year.

The Prime Minister said abortion is legal in Canada. I mean that was strong words … And he made promises during campaign. So there’s obviously a problem with the way he controls his caucus or it satisfies him because it satisfies some part of their supporters.

And here is what Ms. Ashton told the House when Mr. Woodworth’s motion was debated.

If the Prime Minister did not want a woman’s right to choose to be debated, we would not be here tonight.

Of course, an an entirely separate front, the New Democrats have mocked Conservative MPs as messengers of the PMO.

It’s easy to fall into circular logic here—the Prime Minister controls what his MPs say and do, so why isn’t he controlling MPs like Mark Warawa and Stephen Woodworth?—and from there it’s easy to fall into conspiracy theories. (See my interview with Brad Trost for some discussion of this). So it’s maybe worth sticking with a basic question: Should MPs be free to table bills or motions that do anything other than express full and complete support for unlimited access to abortion? (Or is access to abortion sacrosanct?)

The Conservatives would seem to have run into trouble now after attempting to say no (or at least, no more). But it is a question the opposition parties might be asked as well.