Settled debate or not? Canadian politicians weigh in on U.S. Supreme Court abortion rights leak
The stunning leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion rights seized political attention in Ottawa on Tuesday, drawing new attention to outstanding government commitments.
In the House of Commons, MPs' persisting differing views were on display after a symbolic push to affirm abortion rights failed, and while the Conservative caucus were told not to comment on the leak, other parties were quick to indicate the importance of upholding Canadians' abortion rights.
The major scoop, published by Politico Monday evening, detailed how America’s top court is on the cusp of overturning a woman's constitutional right to abortion in that country. While the U.S. Supreme Court’s votes are not final until the formal opinions are released and the draft is subject to change, the leak has re-energized pro-rights activists both within the U.S. and internationally.
The draft leak has also sparked questions about what could happen in Canada—where abortion remains legal and publicly funded, although with access limitations in some regions— should the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling that has stood since 1973 in the U.S. be overturned.
In a statement, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights — formerly known as Planned Parenthood of Canada — said that 25 per cent of current MPs have voted in favour of attempts to restrict abortion in Canada, and although the context in Canada is different, "it would be naive to ignore the impact of these movements on abortion access in Canada."
In contrast, politically-engaged anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition welcomed the news, suggesting in a statement that advocates would now be motivated to "work even harder" to see the debate reignited.
LIBERAL PROMISES OUTSTANDING
While abortion was decriminalized in Canada in 1988 as a result of the landmark R. v. Morgentaler case in which the Supreme Court of Canada struck down a federal law, no legislation was ever passed to replace it, and the issue remains an ongoing topic of political conversation. It regularly comes up during election campaigns and in the House of Commons when individual MPs advance anti-abortion bills.
In their 2021 election campaign, the Liberals promised to establish regulations under the Canada Health Act governing accessibility for sexual and reproductive health services to make clear that no matter where someone lives, they have access to sexual and reproductive health services.
The Liberals also vowed to give Health Canada $10 million to set up a portal for sexual and reproductive health information, including countering misinformation about abortion; provide funding to youth-led organizations focused on young people's reproductive health needs. These commitments then made their way into both Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Women and Gender Equality Minister Marci Ien's mandate letters.
Responding to questions about progress made on these pledges, Duclos office told CTV News that the minister "will continue to uphold the Canada Health Act to help ensure that patients do not face barriers when accessing medically necessary health care," and pointed to a 2021 budget commitment to spend $45 million over three years, starting last year, to fund organizations focused on the accessibility of sexual and reproductive health care information and services.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also campaigned on a promise to no longer provide charity status to anti-abortion organizations that offer “dishonest counselling to women about their rights.” Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has been tapped to lead this effort through amendments to the Income Tax Act.
While out of town on Tuesday, Trudeau tweeted about the developments.
"The right to choose is a woman’s right and a woman’s right alone. Every woman in Canada has a right to a safe and legal abortion," Trudeau said. "We’ll never back down from protecting and promoting women’s rights in Canada and around the world."
In the House and to reporters, Freeland and several female cabinet ministers shared their reactions and spoke about how they felt strongly that the potential shift in Americans' abortion access shouldn’t result in a "backsliding" of women's rights in this country, , and called out the Conservative Party for some of its members anti-abortion views.
"As many Canadians I was both shocked and deeply troubled by the news emanating from the United States yesterday evening with regards to the right to abortion," Freeland said in French during question period Tuesday. "Expressing myself here today as a woman, as a mother, and as the deputy prime minister of Canada, it is important for me to highlight the clear and determined commitments that our government has in protecting women's rights to choose."
CONSERVATIVES TOLD NOT TO TALK
Following the draft leak in the U.S., official Opposition MPs were informed in a direct email from interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen's office that "Conservatives will not be commenting."
Though the email to MPs, as first reported on by The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, did not stop several Conservatives from weighing in on what the party deems a matter of conscience.
Some MPs suggested that it is solely a U.S. issue given no change to the Canadian landscape, that the debate is settled in Canada, and that women's rights deserve to be protected.
"I have always been the person that says it’s a woman’s right. That’s who I am," said Ontario Conservative MP and Chair of the House Status of Women Committee Karen Vecchio.
Though, not all in the party feel the same. Social conservative and self-described "human rights defender" Alberta MP Arnold Viersen said he believes "human rights begin when the human begins."
"I should know I have five children, human beings begin at conception," he told reporters, adding that from his perspective "the debate has never been closed."
Defending the leaked email, Bergen said in a statement that the basis for her instruction to caucus was because in her view: "It would be inappropriate to comment on matters before the U.S. Courts."
"When it comes to the debate in Canada, Conservatives' position remains what it has been since the Harper government. Access to abortion was not restricted under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the Conservative Party will not introduce legislation or reopen the abortion debate," Bergen said, noting it is a topic the party allows free votes on.
BLOC MOTION FAILS, NDP EXPRESS CONCERN
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also weighed in on the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion in a press conference earlier Tuesday, calling the situation “deeply concerning.”
“We know that when abortion rights are denied or when abortion services are denied, the result is women die,” he said.
While Singh says Canada’s abortion law is secure, he said there is an issue of access and the government should be increasing health transfers to improve overall services. He said the government should also be withholding additional funding from provinces who are falling short on providing adequate access, something the federal government has done with New Brunswick.
“If you live in a community where there is no abortion services, no clinic you can go to, hospitals that don't provide that service or limited access to hospitals, it means for women that they’ve got to go very far distances to get that service and that lack of access really undermines the right being there,” he said.
“That's where we should be putting our efforts."
Following question period in the House of Commons Tuesday, Bloc Quebecois MP Christine Normandin attempted to move a voice-vote on a unanimous consent motion stating “that the House reiterate that a woman’s body belongs to her and her alone, and recognize her freedom of choice on abortion for any reason.”
It failed after the House Deputy Speaker Chris D’Entremont said he heard "a number" of MPs say "no."
"We have to keep fighting because one moment of inattention can set us back for decades," Normandin said in the House.
With a file from CTV News' Kevin Gallagher, and CNN