Harper’s government is filled with anti-choice MPs, including his second in command Jason Kenney, who has opposed a woman’s right to choose since his college days. But while Harper’s majority inside Parliament is anti-choice, the majority outside Parliament remains pro-choice and recently defeated Motion 408.
This is the legacy of a mass movement. As Carolyn Egan wrote, the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics “stated that for all women to have real choices in our society they require safe and effective birth control services in their own languages and their own communities, decent jobs, paid parental leave, childcare, the right to live freely and openly regardless of their sexuality, employment equity, an end to forced or coerced sterilization, and, of course, full access to free abortion. All were required if women were to have reproductive freedom… In linking struggles, OCAC was able to build a wide campaign through demonstrations, marches and rallies -- in which thousands participated. Through our organizing, we were able to broaden the participation of trade unionists, students, AIDS activists, people of colour and immigrant women’s organizations in the campaign. We understood that, without the active participation and the support of thousands, no change would occur. The goal was to build a visible, mass movement that fought together for women’s reproductive freedom. ”
Anti-choice by stealth
Because of the legacy of the movement that struck down the abortion law in 1988, Harper cannot directly recriminalize abortion, and instead resorts to anti-choice by stealth. Shortly before International Women’s Day in 2008, the Conservatives’ anti-choice “fetal homicide” Bill C-484 passed second reading, with support from the Liberals. But there was widespread opposition from women’s groups, unions and the medical community. In the fall of that year there were protests across the country, forcing Harper to withdraw the motion before the election.
Harper took his anti-choice policies abroad in 2010, using the G8 meeting to impose a maternal health plan that excluded abortion (and initially excluded contraception as well). The world’s leading medical journal The Lancet denounced the plan as “hypocritical and unjust”, and called for a “maternal health plan based on sound scientific evidence and not prejudice.” Instead, Harper went on to deny Planned Parenthood funding except in countries where abortion is illegal. As Angela Robertson said at the 25th anniversary of the Morgentaler decision this year, “Harper has responded by stating that the Conservative government will never endorse anti-abortion legislation while he is in power. We ask: if these rights are worth preserving for women in this country, are they not then equally worth supporting for other women around the world.” There was widespread opposition to Harper’s plan, causing a frustrated Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth to demand women’s groups “shut the fuck up about abortion.” Instead, women led the mass demonstration in Toronto, with a giant coat hanger and banner reading “Maternal health includes abortion.”
Then came Bill C-510 against “coerced abortion” and then Motion 312 to change the definition of “human being”, which was supposedly an issue of conscience. But as the NDP Status of Women critic Niki Ashton said in Parliament, “This is not an issue of conscience, it’s an issue of women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights and they are not up for debate.” While Motion 312 was defeated, it received support from 10 Tory cabinet ministers including Jason Kenney and the Minister for Status of Women Rona Ambrose. Ambrose said she voted for Motion 312 as way to “raise concern about discrimination by sex-selection abortion", helping fellow Conservative Mark Warawa launch another anti-choice motion, Motion 408
Motion 408: lip service and scapegoating
Motion 408 called on Parliament to “condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination”. Warawa later added that he “would be shocked at anybody who would oppose a motion that is condemning discrimination against women and girls.” But as Joyce Arthur pointed out “Mark Warawa is one of the most zealous anti-choice MPs in the Conservative caucus…Further, Warawa has no record at all on protecting or advancing women’s rights.” Dr. Prabhat Jha, a world expert on sex-selection abortion, has debunked the “evidence” for this occurring in Canada warned against restricting ultrasounds and safe abortions where it does exist. According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, “providing patients with results of diagnostic imaging procedures is part of the Canadian standard of care, and fetal sex determination and disclosure should not be exempt.”
Motion 408 paid lip service to women’s rights while scapegoating immigrants for supposedly importing sexism. As National Post columnist Barbara Kay claimed during a recent televised debate on Motion 408: “In our country, in Canada, girls are very much as welcome as boys. There are certain communities where girls are not as welcome as boys, and that is the problem. Do I think we can judge these people? Absolutely. We are a nation that is built on certain democratic principles, on the equality of people before the law, and certainly on the equality of the sexes. So it is not only ok to judge people that take an alternate view, but to judge them quite severely, and say, ‘look, you’re here in this country, these are our values, if you are actually translating alternate values, it’s the same as if they believed in slavery.”
Motion 408 provided a cover for the Harper government’s discrimination against women—from canceling a national childcare program on his first day in office, defunding women’s groups, ignoring the women-led Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty, cutting refugee healthcare including for pregnant women, opposing LGBT rights, denying pay equity, and more—while aiming to further restrict abortion rights. Recently, three Tory MPs called for the RCMP to investigate late-term abortions as homicides, showing that the ultimate goal of anti-choice motions is not simply to “raise concern” but to recriminalize abortion.
As I co-wrote last fall, “Motion 408 ignores all this systemic discrimination, erodes women's reproductive choice, scapegoates the South Asian community, and then has the audacity of accusing opponents of the motion of ‘discrimination.’ But the incessant claims of ‘not wanting to open the abortion debate,’ while chipping away at choice through deceptive motions demonstrates the Conservatives are not confident to openly confront the pro-choice majority. Challenging Motion 408 provides the opportunity to clarify the reality of abortion in Canada, expose the consequences of restricting choice, and defend and expand abortion rights through the broader context of reproductive justice.”
While the anti-choice is emboldened by the Harper majority inside Parliament, the pro-choice majority outside Parliament is rising to resist. On October 20 there was a day of action for reproductive justice across the country, and on January 28 there were events to look back on the movement that won abortion rights and look forward to continuing the movement. On March 9, thousands marched at International Women’s Day in Toronto for indigenous sovereignty, abortion rights and an end to violence against women. On March 26, UofT Med Students for Choice organized a conference about the historical, political, legal and medical aspects of abortion. On April 13, community and labour allies held a picket in Mississauga outside the office of one of the Tory MPs calling for the criminalization of late-term abortions.
Instead of uniting Tories and dividing the opposition, Motion 408 split the Tories. Rona Ambrose backtracked and refused to support the motion, explaining that “the opposition has positioned it as an issue about abortion so it becomes a very divisive issue.” Under Harper’s rule a parliamentary committee declared the motion unvotable, causing a rift in the Tories before Warawa dropped the motion.
The attacks on abortion have not gone away, either federally or provincially—from PEI which still has no abortion provider, New Brunswick which refuses to cover clinic abortions, and Ontario where Tory leader Tim Hudak has signed a petition calling for the defunding of abortion. But there’s rising resistance to defend and expand abortion rights as part of a broader movement for reproductive justice—building on the legacy of what Judy Rebick has called “the deepest and most important victory the women's movement in Canada has ever had… After eight years of organizing, demonstrating, direct action, lobbying, fundraising and sometimes facing threats and violence, we had won.”