After months of agonizing internal debate, the federal Conservative government was at last ready to introduce its long-delayed compromise legislation on abortion—but there was one final hurdle. As Justice Minister Douglas Lewis and his staff gathered at 7 a.m. last Friday in his third-floor office a block from Parliament Hill, rumors surfaced that a group of New Democratic Party MPs who favor abortion on demand would resort to procedural tactics in an attempt to block the bill’s introduction. In the end, however, the NDP’S delaying tactics had little effect. Shortly after noon, with minimal fanfare and only scattered complaints from the government and opposition benches, MPs present in the Commons voted 76 to 21 to allow the government to table the legislation. Said Lewis during a subsequent news conference: “This legislation offers a reasonable solution to a very difficult problem.”
But even as Lewis was outlining the legisla-
THE TORIES’NEW BILL ON ABORTION DRAWS FIRE FROM CRITICS ON ALL SIDES OF THE BITTER DEBATE
tion, opposition to the proposed law was gathering force. Indeed, by its very nature the bill seemed destined to arouse the ire of activists on both sides of the abortion debate. On the one hand, it makes abortion a matter for the Criminal Code—a provision that is anathema to those who believe that the matter should be left
to the woman alone. Observed Wassef Amani, a staff member at the Morgentaler abortion clinic in Halifax: “Women are still going to be seen as criminals.”
On the other hand, the proposed law states that abortions are legal when one doctor determines that a pregnant woman’s physical, mental or psychological health is at risk—grounds that many anti-abortion groups say are so broad as to be meaningless. Noreen Brien, vice-president of a St. John’s, Nfld., chapter of Right to Life, for one, likened the law to “a kick in the stomach.” Added Brien: “The word ‘health’ can be used anyway a person wants it to be used. It appears to be abortion on demand.”
Despite the attacks, Lewis appeared optimistic that the bill would win enough support from MPs on both sides of the issue to become law. If so, it would represent a significant achievement for a government that has been dogged by the abortion controversy since January, 1988, when the Supreme Court of Canada
struck down the country’s previous abortion law. The old law, enacted in 1969, stated that abortions were illegal unless authorized by a committee of three doctors affiliated with an accredited hospital. But the court, in a 5-to-2 ruling in a case involving criminal charges laid against Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who specializes in abortion procedures, declared that the law was unconstitutional because the restrictions of the committee provision violated a woman’s right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”
In the wake of that decision, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney promised a new abortion law that would balance the rights of both women and the unborn. But the task of drawing up legislation that would meet the Supreme Court’s requirements proved much more difficult than the government had at first anticipated. In July, 1988, the Tories tried to find a solution to the problem by introducing a motion that would have allowed relatively easy access to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, while making it more difficult later on. After two days of debate, however, MPs rejected that proposal by a vote of 147 to 76. They also defeated several amendments that represented both sides of the issue.
Last spring, Lewis searched again for a way out of the impasse. But he had no success. In an interview last week, he acknowledged the difficulty of building a consensus within the 167member Tory caucus, whose ranks include representatives of all points of view in the abortion debate. “We took the issue to cabinet and caucus in the spring, but the window of public opinion did not seem to be there for a compromise,” Lewis told Maclean’s. But he
added that the mood within caucus changed substantially after the highly publicized cases last summer of Barbara Dodd in Toronto and Chantal Daigle in Montreal, two women who sought abortions but were challenged in the courts by former boyfriends. Said Lewis: “I think the events of the summer created the will in members’ minds to deal with the issue.”
Then, in early October, Mulroney struck a secret caucus committee chaired jointly by Quebec MP Lise Bourgault, who supports abortion as an option, and B.C. MP Benno Friesen, who opposes abortion. Over the first two weeks of the month, Bourgault said, the 10-member committee worked as long as 10 hours a day consulting justice department lawyers and debating among themselves a range of possible options. Bourgault said that it was she who first proposed that the committee abandon any attempt to set a time limit for legal abortions. “I based it on my belief that the idea of a gestational approach, in itself, limits access because it does not allow women in remote areas enough time to arrange an abortion,” Bourgault told Maclean’s. “I know the pro-lifers are not going to like it, but they would not have liked anything that did not outlaw abortion.”
In fact, anti-abortion groups wasted no time in condemning the legislation. Margaret Purcell of the Toronto-based Campaign Life Coalition described the bill as “barbaric” and tantamount to abortion on demand. Purcell also scoffed at Mulroney’s claim that he personally opposes abortion under most conditions: “Mulroney likes to consider himself pro-life but he wants to be all things to all people.” And in Vancouver, the president of a group that has picketed the Everywoman’s Health Centre, a private abortion clinic, vowed to put pressure on MPs to defeat the bill. Said Betty Green, president of the Vancouver Right to Life Society: “This is the most inept legislation I have ever seen. It is intended to permit the killing of unborn children.”
By contrast, those supporting abortion as an option accused the government of trampling on the rights of women to end unwanted pregnancies. They also warned that disgruntled boyfriends, as well as activists opposing abortion, could use the legislation to harass doctors who perform abortions. Declared NDP MP Svend Robinson, whose party officially opposes making abortion a criminal matter: “This renders not only doctors but also women, potentially, criminals.”
Critics of the bill also complained that it did nothing to ensure that women across Canada
have equal access to abortion. Currently, abortion clinics operate freely in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Women elsewhere who want an abortion must either find a local hospital where a doctor is willing to perform the procedure or travel to those cities. But in Nova Scotia, Morgentaler is challenging a provincial government ban on abortions outside accredited hospitals. Last week, government lawyers in Halifax were trying to shut down a clinic where he admitted to performing 13 abortions. Morgentaler was in court when the federal government tabled its legislation. He later predicted that the proposed federal law, as well as Nova Scotia’s legislation, would be thrown out on the grounds that it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In his own case, the Nova Scotia court reserved judgment on the province's attempt to shutter his Halifax clinic.
Lewis, who personally supports a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, acknowledged that the new law would not make abortion equally available everywhere in the country. But he insisted that the federal government had no right to impose one set of standards on the entire country. “This legislation will give the provinces some guidance with respect to facilities and access,” said the minister from Orillia, Ont. “But this is a big country, and people in St. John’s have different views than people in downtown Toronto or rural Saskatchewan. I do not think that I, a central Canadian, should legislate on that.”
For the moment, Lewis’s principal concern will be to convince a sufficient number of MPs to support the bill in a vote that, for most, will be free from party discipline. His prospects are by no means assured. Mulroney has instructed his 38-member cabinet to vote in favor of the legislation, but at least one minister suggested last week that he may defy that order. Declared an openly emotional Transport Minister Benoît Bouchard, who opposes abortion: “The substance of the law does not correspond with my personal convictions, and it’s up to me to decide how I am going to vote. I will do what my conscience says I have to do.” Meanwhile, other Tory MPs, as well as those in the opposition, are free to vote as they choose on the bill. And among the opposition Liberals, MPs on both sides of the issue appeared united against Lewis’s proposal. Both status-of-women critic Mary Clancy, who supports abortion as an option, and critic for the solicitor general John Nunziata, who opposes it, closed ranks to denounce the Tory compromise.
But Lewis said that he is convinced there is no better solution to the abortion dilemma. “This is not Doug Lewis’s bill and it is not Brian Mulroney’s bill,” the minister added. “It is somewhere in the middle, which is where it should be.” In the end, the strongest argument Lewis has going for him is that unless MPs pass this bill, the next attempt at a compromise in the divisive issue may be even less satisfactory.
ROSS LAVER with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, LISA VAN DÜSEN in Ottawa, and GLEN ALLEN in Halifax
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