Canada's escalating debate on abortion

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.

It began when he recently announced he would make improving the health of mothers in poor countries the centerpiece of the G8 summit, to be held in Toronto in June. Part of the reason for the surprise announcement, analysts suggested, was to soften the image of Harper’s party and make inroads with women voters in Canada.

Almost immediately, it began to backfire. First, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon attracted the criticism of aid groups by stating that the programs Canada would fund in developing countries would exclude birth control.

Days later, with criticism mounting, Harper reversed course, saying contraception could be part of the initiative. But he triggered an even livelier debate by suggesting that abortion would not be part of the package.

“Canadians want to see their foreign aid money used for things that will help save the lives of women and children in ways that unite the Canadian people rather than divide them,” Harper told the House of Commons.

By the time he made that statement, his government had already been publicly rebuked by the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She did so during a G8 meeting of foreign ministers near Ottawa, with an embarrassed Cannon sitting by her side.

“You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health,” Clinton told a news conference. “And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion.”

The comments reflect Clinton’s strongly held views on the matter, and the Obama administration’s rescinding of the Bush policy that steered foreign aid away from programs that included abortion.

Harper has since been insisting he doesn’t want to reopen the debate on abortion in Canada. But many have noted the contradiction between a foreign policy that rejects abortion for women in developing countries and Canadian laws that give women here access to abortions paid by government insurance.

The Liberal Party, the main opposition to Harper’s Conservatives, has tried to make the most of the issue. Led by their struggling leader, Michael Ignatieff, it tried to pass a motion in parliament demanding that the government “refrain from advancing the failed right-wing ideologies previously imposed by the George W. Bush administration in the United States.” But in a major embarrassment for Ignatieff, the motion was defeated when several of his own anti-abortion MPs stayed away from the vote.

Still, much was made last week of leading Canadian pollster, Frank Graves, advising the Liberals to launch a “culture war” against the Conservatives.

He described it as a battle of “cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, secularism versus moralism, Obama versus (Sarah) Palin, tolerance versus racism and homophobia, democracy versus autocracy.”

When the election comes — Harper’s refusal to release documents about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan is the latest to threaten his government’s survival — it promises to be livelier than usual.