If anyone doubted that this country’s English-language and French-language news narratives can exist entirely independently, consider what Quebec’s status-of-women minister Martine Biron did this week without hardly anyone in English Canada noticing: She proposed to cement via legislation a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
You’re not supposed to talk about abortion legislation in Canada — certainly not if you’re pro-life, but not if you’re pro-choice either. Legislation would violate Canada’s supposedly sacred legal vacuum on abortion, we are told, unique though it may be among developed nations. Open the door to try to enshrine women’s rights in law, we are warned, and heaven knows what anti-choice nightmares might charge through.
If you ask me, those fears are wildly overblown — but at the same time, from a pro-choice standpoint like Biron’s, there’s no need to pursue legislation. If she persists in this endeavour, however, it could be bad news for the federal Liberals and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“What I want to consecrate is the principle. I want to hang it on the wall,” Biron told La Presse. “I want us to say that this right is a right in Quebec, we believe in it and we want to protect it.” Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette has offered Biron “a small team of lawyers” to explore the option, La Presse reported, and apparently she made Premier François Legault aware of her intentions before entering politics last year. Biron acknowledged that she was treading on federal jurisdiction; if Ottawa wanted to legislate on the matter itself, she said, that would take precedence.
“Since 1988 … there have been 48 attempts by a member of Parliament, via a private member’s bill, to restrict women’s right to abortion,” Biron told La Presse. “Who says the 49th won’t (succeed)?”
No one says that, I suppose … except the leader of every party in the House of Commons. But neither Biron nor anyone on Parliament Hill can make a law that says no MP shall ever in future try to amend the law.
Let’s say Biron’s idea gathers steam. Accepting the sacred obligation to tread extremely lightly around Quebec, where would that leave Trudeau?
He can’t accuse Biron of being a closet anti-abortionist, the way he would a conservative proposing such a measure. Every party in the National Assembly is resolutely pro-choice. And he can’t criticize the idea all that harshly either, since he himself has mooted it. After the Roe v. Wade decision, Trudeau agreed abortion rights were under threat and wondered aloud how they might be strengthened: “Maybe it’s legislation, maybe it’s not legislation,” he said. “Maybe it’s leaving it in the hands of the Canadian Medical Association.
“No country in the world, including Canada, is immune to what’s going on in the United States,” Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly warned at the time.
At the very least, persistence on Biron’s part would threaten what has been a scandalously successful schtick for Trudeau and Co.: They trot out the spectre of abortion restrictions every four years (or as needed) for partisan purposes, while doing not much of anything in the meantime to address pro-choice concerns over accessibility. The pointy end of the government’s stick thus far has been clawing back all of $64,850 in health-care funding from New Brunswick, this year, for providing allegedly insufficient access to abortion.
More people than ever seem to have cottoned on to this grift: The past two election campaigns have featured pushback from abortion-rights advocates quite rightly asking what the Liberals have done for them lately.
For the Liberals nowadays, however, it’s full schtick ahead.
Many commentators swooned à-la-2015 earlier this month when Trudeau engaged with a young People’s Party of Canada (PPC) supporter in Winnipeg and supposedly hit a home run for abortion rights. It wasn’t exactly the Lincoln-Douglas debates: This young fellow was concerned with women who “sleep around,” but couldn’t even remember what the opposite of “pro-choice” was. Some of Trudeau’s arguments, meanwhile, were high-school embarrassing. When the PPC supporter told Trudeau he was Christian, the prime minister shot back, “so you don’t think we should be supporting Muslims?”
Many seemed to appreciate Trudeau invoking the spectre of conception-via-rape as a test case for abortion rights, which the PPC supporter conceded was “complicated.” Liberals distributed the video far and wide; Trudeau even starred in a video of himself watching the video of himself on his phone.
But Lesley Ann Foster, a PhD candidate in cultural studies at Queen’s, made an interesting observation in a piece at The Conversation: By raising rape, Trudeau was implicitly accepting “the notion that there are acceptable and unacceptable reasons to terminate a pregnancy.”
I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism. I am entirely sure that “fair criticism” is something the Liberals have never had to worry about on this file — not on offence, and not on defence. Wiping the smirk on their collective face might make Biron’s project worthwhile on its own.