Let the debate begin

  • May 17, 2011

A record turnout of some 15,000 pro-life supporters cheered former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien at the annual March for Life when he proclaimed on Parliament Hill that the abortion debate is back on.

O’Brien may be correct to sense a change in temperature. While still no heat wave, pressure is building for Stephen Harper’s new Conservative majority to initiate the national debate shunned by successive Parliaments since a 1988 Supreme Court decision overturned Canada’s abortion laws.

This reluctance to debate an issue of such fundamental importance is, of course, a travesty. It is Canada’s shame that it is the only Western democracy with no laws on abortion. A woman is legally entitled to receive an on-demand abortion at any point during pregnancy.

This sorry state persists despite support from only a small minority of Canadians. A poll this month by Abacus  Data of Ottawa showed 59 per cent of Canadians (and 63 per cent of women) support enacting restrictions on abortion against just 22 per cent who endorse the status quo. For most, the question isn’t whether Canada should have abortion laws; it’s a matter of how new laws should be framed.

Yet politicians, infuriatingly, frustratingly, refuse to initiate the debate. That was the case under Liberal majorities and Conservative minorities, but even with a new majority and a socially conservative caucus largely sympathetic to calls for abortion legislation, Harper sounds reluctant to budge.

“As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate,” Harper said during the recent election campaign. “The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister.”

Although that sounds definitive and although we generally expect politicians to keep election promises, we urge Harper to reconsider.

When the Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws in 1988 it was not because it favoured an anything-goes abortion policy. The court believed it was the role of Parliament to draft abortion legislation to conform with the Charter. But Parliament has repeatedly shirked its duty.

The debate should be about more than abortion law. If an outright ban is not achievable — Catholics may have to swallow that Canadians overwhelmingly support early term abortion — the debate must include a discussion of non-abortion options for distressed women. Abortion is too often the first choice rather than last option. That has to change.

Even if Harper won’t reopen the abortion debate, government has a moral obligation to provide women with medical, financial and social programs to support them through pregnancy. Public funds that currently prop up the abortion industry should be spent on support programs for pregnant women.

This debate is long overdue. Maybe it’s not here yet, but we sense that it’s coming.

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