Who wants to debate abortion? - Macleans.ca

Who wants to debate abortion?

Not the majority of Canadians

Ryan Remiorz/CP

Ryan Remiorz/CP

In the wake of Justin Trudeau’s clarification that he’ll whip all abortion-related votes in the House of Commons, Andrew Coyne, Chris Selley, Jen Gerson and Peter Loewen are variously concerned and Gerald Butts, a senior advisor to Mr. Trudeau, responds to the Post’s Andrew Coyne and Kelly McParland via Facebook.

But let’s take their arguments seriously for a moment, and ask the core question: why is abortion such a special issue for these gents? Why is it fascistic to insist MPs support party policy on women’s rights, but not, say, tax policy? Or same sex-marriage? Or health care?

They say this is a matter of “conscience”, a moral issue that separates it from other policy matters. Really? Abortion is a moral issue, but sending young men and women to die in war is not? Would these gents advocate free votes on military matters, or would they eviscerate a party for inconsistency if it dared suggest holding one. How about poverty? The Bishop of Rome called inequality the root of all evil on Earth. I look forward to all the Post pieces quoting the Pope on social justice matters. What about other Charter protected rights like freedom of expression? Would these journalists support a party policy that permitted MPs to vote in favour of restricting a free press?

Of course not. No, what they really mean is that this is a deeply held religious conviction for many people. I completely respect that, obviously. We as a party recognize that all members are free to hold whatever belief they wish. But all parties routinely (and consistently) require the religious observants among them to check their beliefs at the door on policies ranging from military service, to health care, to marriage equality.

The moral exception argument is, in short, hogwash. Demonstrably so if you think about it for more than a minute.

Second, these men all argue (to greater or lesser degrees) that it infringes upon the rights of Members of Parliament to insist that they vote a certain way on a policy matter. Others on twitter, especially Norman Spector, the retired diplomat and former Chief of Staff to Brian Mulroney (perhaps you’re noting a demographic pattern here), have called the policy a “diktat” or an “edict”. The clear implication is that it is somehow autocratic of Trudeau to impose this policy on an unsuspecting party.

They might have a point here, if the facts supported the contention, but they don’t. As noted, the party members voted to make the Party pro-choice in 2012. In 2013, while seeking the leadership of the party, Trudeau campaigned on precisely this policy. We announced it in Winnipeg, just before the leadership debate, which all of these gentlemen presumably noted or covered.

After publicly announcing his intention to do just what we did, Trudeau was given an overwhelming mandate by his party. The policy has been operative since we started green-lighting candidates in 2014. So the democratic legitimacy point is at least as weak as the moral exception argument. It is just a bit lazier to argue it, since the facts that contradict it are so easily verifiable.

So what is it then? Why the allergic reaction to this policy? I am not going to do what Coyne did, and make up an offensive motive so I can shoot it down and question the integrity of the person I impose it on.

I don’t think that’s fair, and in this case it’s not necessary. You can judge why these gentlemen, writing in the National Post, are so illogical and vitriolic about the Liberal Party’s policy to support women’s rights.

Sometimes, as the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur: the thing speaks for itself.

Arguments that we should have a debate about abortion or that there is a debate to be had or that it reflects poorly on us that we haven’t settled on a specific set of laws around abortion can point to polling data that shows our current legal situation doesn’t reflect our collective opinions. But polling data also shows a general reluctance to debate abortion.

An Abacus poll in 2011 found that 52% agreed with the idea that “When discussing matters of life and death there is never a bad time for debate. We shouldn’t be afraid to debate tough” issues, but just because we don’t think we should be afraid of the debate, we don’t seem particularly eager to have. As of January 2013, 59% of respondents to an Angus Reid poll agreed with the statement that “There is no point reopening a debate about abortion in Canada right now.” According to this compilation of polls, an Angus Reid poll three years earlier found the exact same result—59% opposed. (A 2010 Ipsos Reid poll found a plurality—46%—thought the government should leave the issue alone.)

Actual support for a debate stood at 30% in January 2013. And it would be interesting to know what sort of priority those people would put on the issue. In terms of federal public policy, how many would consider a debate on abortion to be among, say, their top five concerns?

If Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair have basically joined forces to block change, they can at least count on a certain reluctance to do anything different. If we use Motion 312 as a proxy, you could even say the House of Commons is roughly in line with public opinion—of the 304 MPs who voted on that motion in 2012, 67% opposed it.

What could change this collective reluctance? I think Jen Gerson identifies the reality in her piece—unless a problem with the current situation is demonstrated, it’s hard to imagine there being any great desire to change anything.

This is why I, personally, don’t support legal restrictions. In light of the professional standards of practice, they’re unnecessary. However, pro-choice advocates better keep their fingers crossed that a rogue Kermit Gosnell-like figure doesn’t surface in some backwater shack in this country.

If our lack of regulation made it impossible to prosecute such a creature, my guess is that public sentiment would turn right quick.

This perhaps makes abortion not unlike most issues of public policy. Minus a great desire or obvious need for change, there is no change.


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