Old legislation’s legacy lingers on

Why is it so hard to talk about abortion in Canada? Conservative MPs have complained that the Prime Minister's Office doesn't allow them to talk about abortion in the House of Commons. An evangelical magazine recently noted that 59 per cent of Canadians feel there is no point in reopening the abortion debate…but also that 77 per cent do not understand the state of abortion law in Canada.

The fact of course is that there has been no real law since 1988, when the Morgentaler decision struck down the law that required abortions to be approved by hospital committees. The Supreme Court found that the committee system was very arbitrary and inconsistent, and struck down the law on that basis. But, as many point out, the Court did not ban all abortion laws forever; it just said the present one was unworkable. Parliament was free to come up with a new law, and indeed it tried.

In July 1988 the House of Commons defeated a Mulroney government proposal to make early-term abortions easier to get and late-term ones harder to obtain, and also voted down five additional options suggested by individual MPs.

The next year, the government introduced Bill C-43, which kept abortion in the Criminal Code but allowed it on broad grounds. Like the 1988 motion, it was opposed by pro-choice groups for being too restrictive, but also by some (but not all) pro-lifers for being too broad; in fact, it split the pro-life community with then-Evangelical Fellowship of Canada president Brian Stiller supporting the bill while others were deeply opposed.

C-43 passed narrowly in the House of Commons, but was defeated on a tie vote in the Senate in 1991. Since then, no Canadian government has introduced an abortion law.

So why is it hard to talk about abortion in 2013, especially in Parliament? Look back 25 years and you'll get the answer.

The lesson for politicians—including Stephen Harper more than two decades later—was very clear: abortion is a loser issue that will inevitably offend most people on both sides, and ultimately nothing will get done. Principled politicians don't try to please all of the people all of the time. But they don't want to offend all of the people all of the time either, and that's the perennial risk with abortion laws, given the strong militancy and uncompromising stance of both sides.

So why bother? In 2013, many pro-lifers would be grateful to get C-43 back, but they're unlikely to convince many politicians to reopen the debate. As well, pro-lifers sometimes fail to recognize that the other side is also unhappy. Pro-choice groups argue that access to abortion remains inconsistent and arbitrary, and want more to be done. But governments generally ignore them just as much—they really just want the issue to go away. The legacy of C-43 will linger for a long time.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.