Andrew Scheer really doesn't want to talk about abortion. Neither did Stephen Harper

Andrew Scheer would very like to squelch talk of how abortion rights would fare under a Scheer government. He might consider asking his old boss how easy it is to keep a lid on the abortion debate while in office.

In Conservative governments, the debate tends to find its own momentum - unless the PM shuts it down

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer speaks to reporters following a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"As I've said, many, many times before," Andrew Scheer said on Wednesday, "a Conservative government will not reopen this debate.

"I've been very clear on this ... I've made it very clear. We will not reopen this debate."

A fair bit depends on how broadly Scheer defines the word "we."

At any rate, the example of Stephen Harper suggests the debate over abortion isn't one that a Conservative leader can easily avoid.

On Wednesday, Scheer was asked whether he would allow Conservative MPs to introduce legislation related to abortion and, if so, whether he would allow those MPs to vote freely on such proposals.

Such questions have been coming up a lot lately, prompted by a wave of new legislation to restrict access to abortion services in the United States and by comments Scheer himself made when he was seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party.

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Justin Trudeau's Liberals have leaned into the debate, publicly pressuring Scheer over the fact that a dozen Conservative MPs recently attended an anti-abortion rally on Parliament Hill.

On Wednesday, Scheer accused the Liberals of "trying to import a divisive issue" from the United States to split Canadians and distract from the government's recent troubles. But he also stopped short of directly answering the questions he was asked.

Abortion and the backbench

Based on what he said during the Conservative leadership race, Scheer's answer to those specific questions would seem to be "yes." Those campaign comments suggested that, while a Scheer government would not itself introduce abortion legislation, Conservative backbenchers would be free to do so and Conservatives would be free to vote their "conscience" on those bills or motions.

That roughly corresponds with official Conservative policy on such matters and relies on a legitimate parliamentary distinction between the MPs who are part of the government (cabinet ministers, parliamentary secretaries) and those who are not (the backbenchers who are members of the governing party, but not part of the executive).

If that's still Scheer's position, he might just say so. But he also wouldn't be the first Conservative leader to have second thoughts about indulging the backbench.

Then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper gives the thumbs-up to supporters at a campaign rally in Surrey, B.C. on Sunday Jan 22, 2006. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper came to office with a similar commitment to avoid reopening the debate. "A Conservative government will not be bringing forward, will not be supporting, and will not be debating the abortion laws in this country," he said in January 2006.

But Conservative backbenchers — at least for the first seven years of the Harper government — were clearly not covered by the prime minister's campaign vow.

Between 2006 and 2012, three Conservative proposals related to pregnancy and unborn children reached the floor of the House for a vote. In 2008, a bill that would have created a new penalty for injuring or causing the death of an unborn child while committing an offence against a pregnant woman was passed at second reading, but did not advance any further before Parliament was dissolved for an election.

Harper loses patience

In 2010, a bill that would have made it an offence to coerce a woman to have an abortion was defeated by a vote of 178 to 97. In 2012, a motion to study the legal definition of a "human being" was defeated by a vote of 203 to 91.

Harper voted against the proposals in 2010 and 2012, but he did not whip his cabinet ministers to do the same.

By 2013, Harper's patience for these sorts of things apparently had run out. Mark Warawa, another Conservative MP, came forward with a motion to condemn "sex-selective" abortions. That motion was blocked from reaching the House — and then Warawa was blocked from giving a statement in the House to express his unhappiness with the situation.

At a subsequent meeting of the Conservative caucus, Harper reportedly said that his edict against reopening the debate now included initiatives proposed by backbench MPs. "He said he's determined to keep his word to the people of Canada and he views this motion as tantamount to breaking the promise," a source told the Globe and Mail. "He vowed he would use whatever tools are at his discretion to prevent the abortion debate from being reopened."

The sustainability of that ban was never really tested, because Harper was out of office within two years. His successor seems to be willing to revert to the pre-Warawa position.

No doubt Scheer, who won the party leadership with the help of social conservatives, would like to reassure two different, and opposed, audiences — by holding out a small measure of hope for anti-abortion voters while assuring pro-choice conservatives and swing voters that he won't criminalize abortion.

But the Harper years were also a reminder that this debate extends beyond domestic laws and private members' bills. In fact, when it came to abortion, the greatest conflicts on Harper's watch involved his government's foreign policy: the move to exclude abortion services from a commitment to fund maternal health services overseas and a decision to provide limited funding for Planned Parenthood. Such policies likely cheered up anti-abortion activists, party members and MPs who might otherwise have been frustrated with Harper's approach.

The last four years provided another flashpoint over the funding of summer jobs grants, and the Liberal government's move to ensure that such grants aren't used to fund anti-abortion campaigns.

Even if no Conservative backbencher ever again tables a bill related to abortion, a future Conservative government is bound to end up dealing with questions about abortion policy.

Perhaps a Scheer government would not go out of its way to provoke those questions. But if Scheer truly wants to avoid reopening some kind of debate on abortion, he might not find it easy.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.