A COMPROMISE BILL ON ABORTION WINS APPROVAL, BUT OPPONENTS ON BOTH SIDES VOW TO KEEP FIGHTING
For the six New Democratic Party MPs still in the House of Commons, it was an irresistible opportunity. On the evening of May 24, during the closing hours of final debate on the Conservative government’s abortion bill, they found themselves alone in the House. The lone Conservative watching over the government’s interests at that hour, Quebec MP André Plourde, had left his seat. And, shortly before 10 o’clock, New Westminister-Bumaby MP Dawn Black took advantage of the unexpected chance to embarrass the Tories: she introduced a motion under Commons rules to withdraw Bill C-43 due to unanimous lack of support. “Mr. Speak-
er,” said Black on behalf of her five delighted colleagues, “I think you will find there is unanimous consent in the House tonight.” But Plourde was watching the proceedings on a television set next door in the government lobby. He dashed back to his seat in time to save the bill by bellowing “No” amid an NDP chorus of “Agreed.” Said Black later: “We missed pulling off a major upset by just 30 seconds.” Last week, five days after that incident, opponents of the legislation lost another battle when the Commons passed the bill.
But the close 140-to-131 vote was a narrow victory for the government as 13 Tories, 72 Liberals and 42 New Democrats voted against
C-43. Now, the legislation passes to an equally divided Senate. And it was clear last week that the battle over the bill is far from over. Moments after it passed in the House, spokesmen on both sides of the abortion debate—seeking less or stricter government intervention—said that they would press the Senate to reject the legislation, and challenge it in court if it passes the upper house. “We are not going to quit,” said Karen Murawsky of the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition.
Indeed, the controversial bill has clearly won few admirers on either side of the divisive debate. Under the legislation, both the woman who has an abortion and the doctor who performs it could face jail sentences of up to two years if neither is able to prove that the expectant mother’s physical, mental or psychological health was endangered by continuation of the pregnancy. Replacing the old law, struck down by the Supreme Court on Jan. 28,1988, because it violated a woman’s constitutional right to security of the person, C-43 makes abortion available at any stage of pregnancy under those conditions. And rookie Justice Minister Kim Campbell, 43, said that the legislation represents a workable compromise. Declared Campbell: “I am a pro-choice woman of child-bearing age and I can live comfortably with this legislation.”
But there are clear indications that many Canadians cannot. During five separate outbursts during the May 29 vote, officers forcibly removed a total of two dozen protesters from the public galleries of the House, one of them clinging to a chair. Dozens of other demonstrators stretched out on the steps and walkway in front of Parliament. Meanwhile, many of the 800 doctors who perform abortions in Canada have also voiced concerns about the impact of the new legislation, citing the possibility of criminal charges or lawsuits by
such third parties as spurned boyfriends and anti-abortion groups. In fact, even before the Commons vote, individual doctors in Winnipeg, Calgary and Halifax announced that they would require women requesting abortions to undergo psychiatric assessments or sign written statements about their health—or simply stop performing abortions to avoid the risk of criminal charges under the new law.
But Campbell told Maclean ’s last week that the justice department plans to launch an information campaign to reassure doctors that their concerns are unwarranted. “My challenge now is to try to ensure that doctors and Canadian women understand what the law actually says,” she said. “I think both will find it is very respectful.” But Campbell, a lawyer who inherited Bill C-43 as her first major piece of legislation after being elevated to the justice portfolio in February’s cabinet shuffle, acknowledged that access to abortion under the new legisla-
tion is unlikely to improve. Mindful that in Prince Edward Island no abortions have been performed in eight years, Campbell said: “People have to accept the limitations of government. I cannot make Prince Edward Island tolerant of abortion if that’s not how they feel.” Meanwhile, if C-43 becomes law it is certain to be challenged in the courts. In fact, the bill’s opponents have vowed to institute legal proceedings against it under the equality of rights provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Anti-abortion groups say that its broad definition of the pregnant woman’s health does little to protect the unborn child and, in fact, makes abortion all but available on demand. And pro-choice advocates claim that the legislation denies women the right to make choices concerning their reproductive health. “The carefully crafted middle ground does not exist with this issue,” said Brian Greenspan, president of the 650-member Criminal Lawyers Association, which opposes the legislation. “Either side of the debate could initiate legal proceedings.”
But before Bill C-43 can become law it faces another major obstacle: passage by the Liberaldominated Senate. Although the upper chamber was scheduled to begin debate on the bill this week, senators are due to begin their
summer recess in mid-June. And, said Senator Allan MacEachen, Liberal House Leader in the Senate, when the body meets again in the fall, “we will treat the bill as we treat other bills.” Added MacEachen, who said that he is undecided about the abortion legislation: “Certainly, it won’t be my effort to slow it down or speed it up.”
But in recent years, the Senate has in fact held up some controversial bills, most notably the new unemployment insurance legislation passed by the House last November. And there are already indications that Bill C-
43 may be stalled before the Senate for some time. For one thing, a Senate legal committee that is expected to begin public hearings on the bill this fall will face sharply conflicting demands to harden or soften the legislation. Indeed, some senators themselves have already vowed to oppose the legislation. Ontario Liberal Senator Stanley Haidasz, for one, an ardent anti-abortionist, said that he will try to have the sentence for those convicted under the new law for performing illegal abortions increased to 25 years from two years, and to limit abortions only to life-threatening situations. Said Haidasz: “The bill will be bogged down by debate and may never see the light of day.” Indeed, it is clear that the bill will continue to haunt the Tories—while doing little to quell the debate that it was intended to defuse.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.