One by one, they stood to be heard—and counted. For two days last week, 94 MPs from all political parties seized the opportunity to voice their convictions on the contentious issue of abortion. The stage had been set by a government motion that satisfied neither the prolife nor the prochoice camp. The motion proposed allowing an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy if a woman chose one “in consultation” with her doctor or if a doctor determined that “continuation of the pregnancy . . . would be likely to threaten her physical or mental wellbeing.” But at later—unspecifiedstages, two doctors would have to say that the mother’s life or health were seriously endangered. The vigorous and emotional debate that followed blurred party lines, and in the end five amendments— two prochoice and three prolife—made it to a vote along with the original motion. Then, in a two-hour division on July 28, MPs from both sides of the House dismissed all five amendments and soundly rejected the government’s original motion.
The outcome left the Conservative govern-
ment no closer to producing legislation to replace the 19-year-old abortion law that the Supreme Court struck down last January. Government strategists said that they had introduced a motion—rather than a bill to produce a law—as a means of getting a reading of attitudes in the Commons. But deputy House leader Douglas Lewis acknowledged after the vote, “There is no clear consensus on the issue.” And Justice Minister Ramon Hnatyshyn, who did not speak during the debates but voted for the government’s resolution, still faces the difficult challenge of drafting legislation that appeases his party’s fiercely anti-abortion caucus while respecting the Supreme Court’s ruling. Said a senior Tory strategist: “We have skewered ourselves on this one. We are boxed in.” Opposition MPs dismissed the debate and vote as an attempt by the government, possibly facing an election this fall, to appear to be tackling a divisive issue—and criticized the Tories for not introducing actual abortion legislation. Said Montreal Liberal Jean-Claude Malépart: “For two days Parliament wasted its
time.” NDP Leader Ed Broadbent, who did not speak during the debate, criticized both Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal Leader John Turner for being absent for the vote.
The legal stalemate on abortion arose when the Supreme Court voted 5 to 2 that the existing law violated a woman’s constitutional guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person. The court disagreed with the section of the Criminal Code that restricted abortions to accredited hospitals, and then only in cases in which the majority of the members of a hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee certified that the pregnancy was a danger to a woman’s “life or health.” But last week’s votes confirmed that with few MPs occupying the middle ground on abortion, it will be difficult to pass any new legislation that could survive a court challenge. In fact, the option that attracted the most support was a tough anti-abortion amendment that Ontario Conservative backbencher Gus Mitges introduced. Proposing a total ban on abortion unless the life of the mother was endangered, it was narrowly rejected by a vote of 118 to 105. The Mitges amendment won wide support from the Tory back benches, but all 23 female MPs present for the vote opposed it, as did most opposition members. Said Montreal Liberal MP Lucie Pépin: “Men and women are quite different on this issue, and it really shows.” The MPs turned down the government’s own resolution 147 to 76. Only two ministers, Health Minister Jake Epp and Employment and Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall, spoke during the debate—on opposite sides. Said Epp: “We [prolife advocates] have a very deep sense of what life is all about and we represent a large majority of the country.” McDougall, on the other hand, said that when it come to abortions, “it is the mother who bears the ultimate responsibility and therefore must have the choice.”
Outside the House, advocates from both sides of the issue claimed victory. Anti-abortion activists said that they were ecstatic with the strong support that the Mitges amendment received. But prochoice advocates expressed pleasure that the stalemate has indefinitely shelved abortion legislation. Said Norma Scarborough, president of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League, which has been lobbying MPs to vote against any abortion law: “The longer we can go without legislation, the better we can demonstrate that there has not been anarchy and chaos without it.” And in the wake of last week’s events, it appears unlikely that there will be a new abortion law before the next federal election.
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