Harper's Tories aim to erode women's rights 'by stealth': coalition

Women's rights have eroded under the Conservative minority government with its "clear anti-abortion hidden agenda at work," a coalition of activists said Thursday.

The Conservative government's "clear anti-abortion hidden agenda" has led to an erosion of a woman's right to the procedure, a coalition of women's rights activists said Thursday.

The groups — including the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women — held a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday to call on all party leaders and candidates to openly state their views on the topic.

The groups issued a scathing criticism of the federal Conservatives' past 2½ years in power, citing several examples they see as the party's attempt to reduce women's reproductive rights.

"There is a clear anti-abortion hidden agenda at work that is putting women's health at risk," said Carolyn Egan of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. "We refer to it as anti-choice by stealth." 

One of the groups' key concerns is a private member's bill introduced by Conservative backbencher Ken Epp last year that they believe would have enshrined fetal rights.

The draft Unborn Victims of Crime Act, bill C-484, sought to toughen punishments when a fetus is injured or killed during an attack on a pregnant woman.

In August, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he would replace it with new legislation — which ultimately was never tabled in the House of Commons — to allow judges to consider a victim's pregnancy when determining a sentence, but that "leaves no room for the introduction of fetal rights."

Barbara Byers of the Canadian Labour Congress said she was "suspicious and cynical" that Prime Minister Stephen Harper understood the implications of bill C-484, since he's known for the tight control he keeps over his MPs.

"Don't tell me and try to convince me that he didn't realize that [Epp's bill] would be chipping away at women's rights and wasn't a backdoor way to get what he wants," Byers said.

The groups also questioned why the federal government won't enforce the Canada Health Act after a New Brunswick clinic refused to pay for abortions. 

New Brunswick remains the only province in Canada that won't pay for abortions done in clinics. In a 1988 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, the high court struck down Canada's abortion law as unconstitutional, allowing abortion to be treated like any other medical procedure.

"If they are in truth supportive of women's access to abortion, why will they not act and enforce the Canada Health Act? I find it very cynical that they are unwilling to do it," Egan said.

Asked by reporters about his stance, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said he is pro-choice but added that all leaders but one have been clear on their position on the issue.

"[Harper] has to make his view clear, because Canadians have the right to know," Dion said.

The federal election takes place on Oct. 14.