Abortion-rights move by NDP to embarrass Liberals could backfire

For a party that has long proclaimed itself the parliamentary champion of Canada's pro-choice movement, the federal New Democrats suddenly seem second only to proactively anti-abortion Tory backbenchers Stephen Woodworth and Mark Warawa in their apparent enthusiasm for reopening the debate.

New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair criticized earlier abortion motions for reopening debate

Less than a week after thousands attended the annual March for Life rally on Parliament Hill, NDP MP Niki Ashton served notice that she intends to bring forward a motion that affirms 'a woman's right to choose abortion is a fundamental question of equality and human rights, both in Canada and around the world.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

For a party that has long proclaimed itself the parliamentary champion of Canada's pro-choice movement, the federal New Democrats suddenly seem second only to proactively anti-abortion Conservative backbenchers Stephen Woodworth and Mark Warawa in their apparent enthusiasm for reopening the debate.

In response to Woodworth's ill-fated 2012 attempt to set up a special House committee to study the Criminal Code definition of "human being," New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair suggested that, by allowing the motion to proceed to debate and a vote, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had "allowed the abortion debate to be reopened." 

It was a charge that he repeated when, in the wake of Woodworth's defeat, Warawa brought forward a seemingly less contentious proposal to condemn sex-selective abortion.

"At the end of the day, it's a new attempt by the Conservatives to reopen the debate on abortion and remove from women their right to choose," Mulcair said at the time.

But last Friday, New Democrat MP Niki Ashton served notice that she may force the House to debate and vote on yet another abortion motion — this time, to formally affirm, "in the opinion of the House," that "a woman's right to choose abortion is a fundamental question of equality and human rights, both in Canada and around the world."

It would also call on the government to "lift its policy of refusing to fund international programs that support a full range of family planning and reproductive health-care options, including abortion."

“The NDP is a pro-choice party," Ashton said in the release accompanying the text of the motion.

"Each and every one of my colleagues agrees — women should have the right to make their own decisions in matters of health. Our position is clear and unequivocal, and this is an opportunity for other parliamentarians to take a stand."

Motion likely aimed at Liberal MPs

Although Ashton didn't expand on the definition of "other parliamentarians," the timing makes it difficult not to see the motion as a direct — and pointed — response to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Two days earlier, Trudeau found himself under fire from all sides of the abortion debate over his unexpected assertion that candidates looking to run under the red banner in 2015 will "be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills" that might come before the House.

"Existing MPs who have been grandfathered in […] will be respected to a certain extent in their choices," Trudeau told reporters.

"But our position as a party is we do not reopen that debate."

The wording of Ashton's motion — specifically, her statement that "each and every one" of her colleagues will support it — suggests that the New Democrats are prepared to put Trudeau's pledge to a pre-election test by forcing current Liberal caucus members to put their positions on the official record just before the next campaign gets underway.

(Under the projected timeline for future private members' business, Ashton's motion would likely not make it onto the priority list before next January.) 

UPDATE: It appears the New Democrats are so eager to reopen the abortion debate that they're giving serious consideration to devoting one of the party's upcoming opposition days to an identically worded motion. If they decide to take that procedural route, the motion could make it to the House floor as early as Wednesday.

Three of those Liberals — Kevin Lamoureux, Lawrence MacAulay and John McKay — voted in favour of Woodworth's motion to study the definition of "human being."

A fourth, Jim Karygiannis, has since resigned his seat for a run at Toronto city council.

Lamoureux has already indicated he will vote with the majority of his party if the issue comes up in future, but MacKay and MacAulay have not yet revealed whether they would do the same, which raises the possibility two Liberals expected to be on the ballot in 2015 could side with the nays.

Defeat could help anti-abortion movement

But for the New Democrats, the goal of exposing a rift among their political rivals may come at the price of giving the anti-abortion movement its first solid shot in the arm in years.

Thanks to the wording employed in the motion — specifically, the reference to funding international assistance programs, particularly those related to the government's much-self-vaunted maternal health program — there's a good chance that the motion will fail, even without those two Liberal votes.

Unlike the Woodworth gambit — which was ultimately defeated despite garnering the support of just over half the government caucus, including a half-dozen senior cabinet ministers — Ashton's motion could easily be interpreted as a criticism of current government policy, which would make even the most stridently pro-choice Conservative MP pause before giving a thumbs-up.

Such an outcome would almost certainly provide a major boost to the morale of the anti-abortion movement, which, despite taking centre stage briefly during the Woodworth and Warawa debates, has had little to no success in forcing the issue back onto the floor of the House of Commons.

That flagging political relevancy was apparent during last week's March for Life. According to police estimates, the annual Hill rally attracted just over 8,000 activists in 2014, which would put it at as little as half the RCMP estimate for the previous year, when Warawa's gender selection motion was still in play. Even the 23,000 claimed by march organizers was lower than their 2013 estimate of 25,000.

A defeat for Ashton could easily be spun as an unexpected but welcome victory for those protesters.

At least one anti-abortion group appears to be doing just that before a motion even goes to a vote.

On Monday, WeNeedaLaw.ca director Mike Schouten issued a statement "saluting" both Ashton and the NDP "for finally acknowledging that abortion is not a settled issue in Canada."

"Every poll taken on the subject of abortion, no matter how it is phrased, shows that Canadians are unsettled by the status quo,” he noted, adding, "It's interesting that in light of the government’s promise not to reopen the abortion debate, the NDP is willing to do so."

The group "looks forward to vigorous debate" on the motion, according to Schouten.

"We anticipate that MPs will have the freedom to vote according to their conscience and take into account the feedback from constituents.”

If Ashton's motion goes down to defeat, it's a good bet that Schouten and other anti-abortion activists will attempt to use it as a political lever to pry open the lid on a discussion that, for the most part, both Conservatives and Liberals would rather remain closed.


Kady O'Malley covered Parliament Hill for CBC News until June, 2015.


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