Canadian Conservatives reluctant to comment on report that U.S. Supreme Court will overturn abortion law

Conservative MPs and candidates for the party's leadership were reluctant to talk Tuesday about a leaked report that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn decades-old jurisprudence on abortion.

Abortion has become an election issue in Conservative leadership race

People take part in 'March For Life' on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Conservative MPs and candidates for the party's leadership were reluctant to talk Tuesday about a leaked report that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn decades-old case law on abortion.

A decision by the U.S. top court to upend abortion services would have little practical effect on Canadians; some women pursuing late-term abortions go south of the border for care because of limited access here at home. But the political ramifications could be enormous.

Late Monday, Politico published a copy of an initial draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican appointee, that suggests a majority of justices are prepared to overrule Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision that allowed legal abortions in the U.S. — and return the issue to state legislatures.

The opinion claims the 1973 Roe decision was constitutionally dubious and "egregiously wrong from the start" because its reasoning was "exceptionally weak."

Alito said that decades-old decision, which essentially found that the right to privacy extended to reproductive choices like an abortion, has had "damaging consequences" by dividing a nation into anti-abortion and pro-choice factions and robbing state officials of the power to regulate the practice.

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday, May 3, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a Politico report released Monday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo)

As in the U.S., the issue of abortion has been the subject of much political debate in Canada — perhaps nowhere more so than within the Conservative Party.

Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney failed to pass legislation on abortion after the Supreme Court's 1988 R. v. Morgentaler decision invalidated past Canadian law on the practice. As it stands, there is no federal law governing abortion.

In this context, the Conservative Party's previous leaders, including former prime minister Stephen Harper and MPs Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole, have been dogged by questions from the press and the public about their position on legislating abortion access — and successive Liberal and NDP leaders have made Conservative ambiguity on the topic an election issue.

A woman standung in the House of Commons.
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen says the party will be making no public statements on the leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In an email sent to caucus members Tuesday, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen told MPs and senators that "Conservatives will not be commenting on draft rulings leaked from the Supreme Court of the United States."

In a subsequent statement to CBC News, Bergen said the party's position on abortion "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," she said.

Bergen is an anti-abortion MP and social conservative groups have said she has "a perfect voting record in the House of Commons on life and family issues."

Ontario Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, a parliamentarian who voted in favour of a recent private member's bill that would have banned "sex-selective" abortions, said she'll wait to comment until the U.S. Supreme Court actually renders a decision.

"I think what happens in the U.S. doesn't always filter across into Canada. We'll wait to see what the judge's decision is," she said.

London, Ont.-area Conservative MP Karen Vecchio, the chair of House of Commons status of women committee, said she didn't know enough about the U.S. abortion case to comment.

"I haven't been able to read enough about it but I'm reading more and more," she told reporters.

Asked if she thought a move to strike down Roe could have an impact on Canada, Vecchio said, "I'm not too worried about this right now."

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen said the abortion debate in Canada has "never been closed." (House of Commons video screengrab)

Alberta Conservative MP Arnold Viersen said he was reluctant to comment on a leaked document but added he's proudly anti-abortion.

"Human rights begin with human beings and human beings begin at conception," he said. "I hope to stand up for pre-born humans in Canada."

Asked if he thinks a judgment against Roe could prompt a re-opening of the abortion debate in Canada, Viersen said that the "debate's never been closed."

Anti-abortion activists from the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) and other groups are jockeying to move the issue to the forefront of debate during the current Conservative leadership race.

One leadership candidate — MP Leslyn Lewis — is avowedly anti-abortion, while another — MP Pierre Poilievre — has a mixed record on the issue.

A spokesperson for Lewis said the candidate would "not be commenting on the leaked U.S. Supreme Court documents as it is not a final decision."

Group says Poilievre no longer 'solid pro-life'

But Lewis already has released a policy platform promising what she calls "pro-life" policies, including a ban on "sex-selective" abortions, criminal penalties for "coerced" abortions, increased funding for pregnancy centres (organizations that persuade pregnant women against having abortions) and an end to federal funding for abortion services overseas.

According to the CLC, Poilievre used to be known as "a solid pro-life, pro-family MP" because he voted for policies championed by anti-abortion activists and social conservatives.

Poilieivre previously supported initiatives such as Motion 312 — which would have prompted a review of when a child becomes a human being in Canadian law — and a private member's bill that would have stiffened criminal penalties for the murder of an unborn child.

Conservative MP and leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has said a government led by him would introduce no legislation to govern abortion. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

But in 2020, Poilievre told Quebec newspaper La Presse that, if elected, he would not introduce any bill on abortion. He also said that, while Conservative MPs would be free to introduce anti-abortion private member's bills on his watch, a Conservative government led by him would not pass a law restricting access to abortion.

Those comments have since earned him a "not supportable" rating from the CLC and condemnation from one of the group's leaders.

In an interview with CBC News, Jack Fonseca, the director of political operations for CLC, said Poilievre "used to vote the right way" but the leadership hopeful has now "decided the pro-life label is no longer useful."

Fonseca said that of the six candidates approved to run in the leadership race, Lewis is "the only one who's trustworthy."

A spokesperson for Poilievre did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another leadership hopeful, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, issued a statement Tuesday making it clear he is a pro-choice candidate who "will always support the right of a woman's decision on her reproductive health. Full stop."

"The U.S. Supreme Court interim ruling has undoubtedly caused concern for many women," Brown said. "While this is a U.S. decision, in its wake, it's important for leaders to commit to protecting women's rights."

Patrick Brown holds his son Theodore as he greets supporters and is joined on stage by his wife Genevieve Gualtieri and daughter Savannah after announcing his candidacy for the federal Conservative leadership at a rally in Brampton, Ont., on Sunday, March 13, 2022. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Brown said abortion in Canada should be "safe, legal and, in my opinion, rare." He said that if he's elected, he would not make any changes to Canada's abortion laws.

Brown said if Conservatives don't take a strong pro-choice stance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will use this issue to attack the party ahead of the next federal election, turning abortion "into a sledgehammer to beat our party into oblivion."

"The Justin-Jagmeet coalition will exploit the Roe v. Wade draft decision to use against Conservatives. The Roe v. Wade decision offers the Justin-Jagmeet coalition a lifeline to extend their time in power far beyond 2025, by making Canadians afraid of Conservatives," Brown said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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