Canadian Conservatives reluctant to comment on report that U.S. Supreme Court will overturn abortion law

·6 min read
People take part in 'March For Life' on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)
People take part in 'March For Life' on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press - image credit)

Conservative MPs and candidates for the party's leadership were reluctant to talk Tuesday about a leaked report that suggests the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn decades-old case law on abortion.

A decision by the U.S. top court to upend abortion services would have little practical effect on Canadians; some women pursuing late-term abortions go south of the border for care because of limited access here at home. But the political ramifications could be enormous.

Late Monday, Politico published a copy of an initial draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, a Republican appointee, that suggests a majority of justices are prepared to overrule Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision that allowed legal abortions in the U.S. — and return the issue to state legislatures.

The opinion claims the 1973 Roe decision was constitutionally dubious and "egregiously wrong from the start" because its reasoning was "exceptionally weak."

Alito said that decades-old decision, which essentially found that the right to privacy extended to reproductive choices like an abortion, has had "damaging consequences" by dividing a nation into anti-abortion and pro-choice factions and robbing state officials of the power to regulate the practice.

Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo
Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo

As in the U.S., the issue of abortion has been the subject of much political debate in Canada — perhaps nowhere more so than within the Conservative Party.

Former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney failed to pass legislation on abortion after the Supreme Court's 1988 R. v. Morgentaler decision invalidated past Canadian law on the practice. As it stands, there is no federal law governing abortion.

In this context, the Conservative Party's previous leaders, including former prime minister Stephen Harper and MPs Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole, have been dogged by questions from the press and the public about their position on legislating abortion access — and successive Liberal and NDP leaders have made Conservative ambiguity on the topic an election issue.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In an email sent to caucus members Tuesday, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen told MPs and senators that "Conservatives will not be commenting on draft rulings leaked from the Supreme Court of the United States."

Ontario Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu, a parliamentarian who voted in favour of a recent private member's bill that would have banned "sex-selective" abortions, said she'll wait to comment until the U.S. Supreme Court actually renders a decision.

"I think what happens in the U.S. doesn't always filter across into Canada. We'll wait to see what the judge's decision is," she said.

Anti-abortion activists from the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) and other groups are jockeying to move the issue to the forefront of debate during the current Conservative leadership race.

One leadership candidate — MP Leslyn Lewis — is avowedly anti-abortion, while another — MP Pierre Poilievre — has a mixed record on the issue.

A spokesperson for Lewis said the candidate would "not be commenting on the leaked U.S. Supreme Court documents as it is not a final decision."

Group says Poilievre no longer 'solid pro-life'

But Lewis already has released a policy platform promising what she calls "pro-life" policies, including a ban on "sex-selective" abortions, criminal penalties for "coerced" abortions, increased funding for pregnancy centres (organizations that persuade pregnant women against having abortions) and an end to federal funding for abortion services overseas.

According to the CLC, Poilievre used to be known as "a solid pro-life, pro-family MP" because he voted for policies championed by anti-abortion activists and social conservatives.

Poilieivre previously supported initiatives such as Motion 312 — which would have prompted a review of when a child becomes a human being in Canadian law — and a private member's bill that would have stiffened criminal penalties for the murder of an unborn child.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

But in 2020, Poilievre told Quebec newspaper La Presse that, if elected, he would not introduce any bill on abortion. He also said that, while Conservative MPs would be free to introduce anti-abortion private member's bills on his watch, a Conservative government led by him would not pass a law restricting access to abortion.

Those comments have since earned him a "not supportable" rating from the CLC and condemnation from one of the group's leaders.

In an interview with CBC News, Jack Fonseca, the director of political operations for CLC, said Poilievre "used to vote the right way" but the leadership hopeful has now "decided the pro-life label is no longer useful."

Fonseca said that of the six candidates approved to run in the leadership race, Lewis is "the only one who's trustworthy."

A spokesperson for Poilievre did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another leadership hopeful, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, issued a statement Tuesday making it clear he is a pro-choice candidate who "will always support the right of a woman's decision on her reproductive health. Full stop."

"The U.S. Supreme Court interim ruling has undoubtedly caused concern for many women," Brown said. "While this is a U.S. decision, in its wake, it's important for leaders to commit to protecting women's rights."

Chris Young/Canadian Press
Chris Young/Canadian Press

Brown said abortion in Canada should be "safe, legal and, in my opinion, rare." He said that if he's elected, he would not make any changes to Canada's abortion laws.

Brown said if Conservatives don't take a strong pro-choice stance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh will use this issue to attack the party ahead of the next federal election, turning abortion "into a sledgehammer to beat our party into oblivion."

"The Justin-Jagmeet coalition will exploit the Roe v. Wade draft decision to use against Conservatives. The Roe v. Wade decision offers the Justin-Jagmeet coalition a lifeline to extend their time in power far beyond 2025, by making Canadians afraid of Conservatives," Brown said.