Opinion

Why is the Trudeau government poking the anti-abortion bear?

Trudeau is now been accused of shutting down a debate that we weren't even having a month ago, and turned what might have been a minor matter on summer jobs funding into a national referendum on the government's abortion dogma. And for what?

A relatively small group of fiercely determined activists can define an issue for an entire nation

Trudeau is now been accused of shutting down a debate that we weren't even having a month ago, and turned what might have been a minor matter on summer jobs funding into a national referendum on the government's abortion dogma. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's last move to affirm abortion rights in Canada — by inoculating the Canada Summer Jobs program against inadvertently funding anti-abortion or anti-LGTBQ activities and propaganda — the often quiet, and largely ignored corners of anti-abortion activism in the country have begun to rumble and demand our attention.

A Catholic bishop in London is boycotting the federal funding program, which gives groups money to hire students for summer jobs. A group of Christian leaders held a press conference and called the Liberal government's new requirements "communistic." A Toronto anti-abortion group filed a lawsuit claiming the new rules infringe upon the Charter rights to freedom of conscience and religion. And now there's a petition in the House of Commons to undo the changes.

The pushback is unlikely to sway the prime minister, who has been accused of ignoring the rights of the religious in Canada (many religious Canadians, it should be noted, are pro-choice).

And feminists, of course, should want a government willing to advocate for women's reproductive health and access to abortion, but pushing abortion rights in ways that seem designed to infuriate Canadians who are against abortion — as the Summer Jobs grants scandal has done — is a dangerous way to try to progress women's rights. In fact, it can end up having the opposite effect, to profound consequences.

Activism in the U.S.

Take the example of the United States, where the matter of abortion is far more entrenched in the political arena. Republicans have become the pro-life party, and Democrats the pro-choice, and the issue is so important to many voters that, in case of the recent Alabama Senate race, some will back a credibly accused child molester over the pro-choice alternative.

The debate was not always so polarized. It was only in the late 1970s and 1980s that abortion even became a galvanizing issue for Republicans — a shift documented by Divided We Stand by Marjorie J. Spruill.  

Before then, women and men from either party had complex of views on the debate: Democratic president Jimmy Carter was against federal funding for abortion and personally opposed to the procedure, while at the same time accepted the Roe v. Wade ruling. Barry Goldwater, the extreme right-wing and libertarian GOP nominee for president in 1967 was stridently pro-choice.

Things changed by the 1980s, after abortion became intertwined with the backlash over women's liberation. Activists comprised largely of conservative Christians (mostly Evangelicals, but some Catholics, and many women) equated anti-abortion views with pro-family views, and Republicans saw an opportunity define themselves around the issue. The messaging has been so persuasive that decades later, Evangelicals put President Donald Trump in office, in large part so he'd nominate anti-abortion judges across the federal courts, and especially to the Supreme Court.

Trump won the support of U.S. Evangelicals by promising to appoint anti-abortion judges to federal courts. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Here is my point with that little U.S. history lesson: views on abortion are not destined to evolve in one particular way. And also: a relatively small group of fiercely determined activists can define an issue for an entire nation.

Clearly, Canadian politics have developed differently. But the idea that somehow access to abortion is settled in Canada is misguided.

I don't doubt that many conservative voters in Canada could one day be galvanized along party lines by the abortion issue the way Americans have been — mostly because we've seen that political identity itself can be a more powerful motivator than even the policies or beliefs that it supposedly represents.

And while we're unlikely to see U.S.-style laws and abortion restriction proliferating in Canada, this is a beast that Trudeau should nonetheless avoid awakening.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells a town hall in Nanaimo, B.C. the principle and reasoning behind his decision on abortion and the Canada Summer Jobs program. 2:23

Let me be clear: that does not mean Canada's political leaders should stop defending abortion access. But it does mean diligently avoiding the kind of hamfisted application evident in the Canada Summer Jobs grant fiasco. The Trudeau government couldn't have executed a more perfect political gift for anti-abortion activists, and it's not because it changed the definitions of who can apply: it's because it did so in perhaps the most dismissive way possible toward those with opposing views.

This administration has made some more meaningful moves when it comes to abortion: Trudeau enforced a pro-choice position across the Liberal Party in 2015; he advised the Irish prime minister to treat abortion as a human right; he pledged foreign aid to cover abortion services abroad immediately after Trump pulled U.S. aid for the same. And in a less public move, his government has recently expanded the use of the abortion pill.

And yet access remains imperfect. Only six provinces have agreed to cover the roughly $300 cost of the abortion pill. Only one in six hospitals provide abortions across the country, and they're far more likely to serve women in urban centres. Educating medical students on performing abortions remains controversial. And women still have trouble accessing late-term abortions.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists are continuing to make headlines, demanding Christians get politically involved and calling for a change in the political landscape. The claim of "abortion absolutism" isn't only being flung at Trudeau from anti-abortion groups, but from all corners of the country's ranks of critics.

Trudeau is now been accused of shutting down a debate that we weren't even having a month ago, and turned what might have been a minor matter on summer jobs funding into a national referendum on the government's abortion dogma. That's not progress on abortion access. It's dangerous territory.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Rosemary Westwood

Rosemary Westwood is a freelance journalist and opinion writer.