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Canada's escalating debate on abortion

Prime Minister says Canada won't fund abortions in developing countries, but domestic laws allow for abortions covered by government insurance.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler speaks to the media in Toronto, July 2, 2008. Morgentaler was named a member of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest honor, after spending decades of his life advocating the legalization of abortion in Canada. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — The story of abortion in Canada is a hard-fought and violent affair.

Its protagonist was Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who is now 87 years old. In 1969, he opened an abortion clinic in Montreal, defying a law that restricted abortions to when the health or life of a woman was endangered.

The move landed Morgentaler in jail and triggered years of legal battles that culminated in a 1988 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Forcing a woman, by threat of criminal sanction, to carry a fetus to term unless she meets certain criteria unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations, is a profound interference with a woman's body and thus a violation of her security of the person,” wrote the court’s Chief Justice, Brian Dickson.

With that, the law restricting abortion was struck down. But the battle continued.

Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic was firebombed in 1992. Two years later, three doctors performing abortions in different parts of the country were shot and wounded.

Still, subsequent attempts by federal governments to pass laws restricting abortions ended in failure. Today, abortions in Canada are paid for by government insurance when performed in hospitals. New Brunswick is the only province that won’t pay for them when they are performed in a private clinic.

In 2008, Morgentaler received the Order of Canada, the highest honor given by the Governor General, who represents the Queen as Canada’s head of state. Opponents of abortion were, predictably, outraged.

The only sign of consensus is among political parties, who have more or less agreed to let sleeping dogs lie for the past 15 years. Even Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper, when he first ran for the prime minister’s job in 2004, promised not to introduce abortion legislation, despite core supporters who would have loved to see him do so.

Since becoming prime minister in 2006, Harper has carefully avoided fuelling suspicions, particularly among urban voters, that only the minority status of his government prevents him from being a George W. Bush of the north and implementing an evangelically inspired neo-con agenda.

His government has had its moments, including a science minister who slashed research funding while refusing to say whether he believes in evolution, and the appointment of an evangelist as a top advisor to Harper. But it hasn’t tried to repeal the law permitting same-sex marriages. And a Harper-supported attempt to give legal rights to a fetus — which was seen by some as a step towards restricting abortions — failed.

Yet the studiously cautious Harper now finds himself embroiled in an escalating debate on abortion.