Who's influencing reproductive policy in Canada?

| December 10, 2013
Photo: flickr/infomatique

As Canadians, we’re proud of our reputation for tolerance and fairness. Even with a socially and fiscally conservative government, we still maintain that we are the sane alternative to the extreme Tea Party doctrine so prevalent south of the border. Unfortunately, this national sense of self is more illusion than reality.

We may not be seeing much evidence of a resurgence of debate over reproductive rights, we may not see a need to abandon our complacency and raise alarm bells over the increased influence of the religious right, but to ignore the growing evidence that we are not as tolerant as we‘d like to think would be a mistake.

During last month’s Conservative Party policy convention, the evangelical-dominated Conservative base passed motion after motion, pushing for policies that attack labour rights, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, right to die legislation and gun control.

Harper isn’t, of course, obligated to take these policy motions and turn them into legislation, but given the scandal-ridden record of his government, Mr. Harper might find it necessary to bow to his base by adopting some of their more socially conservative policy demands. And, given the modus operandi of the Harper government, we might expect those socially conservative policies to be slipped into an omnibus bill.

A quick history of reproductive rights in Canada!

Historically, social conservatives in Canadian government haven’t been so oblique when it comes to introducing right-wing, fundamentalist-driven policy and legislation. The Mulroney government of the late 1980s, in response to criticism that its abortion law reform legislation didn’t go far enough, introduced a bill that would undo virtually all progress made by choice advocates over the years.

In 1989, Bill C-43 was a piece of legislation that would ban all abortions unless it could be proved that a woman’s life was at stake. The bill effectively criminalized abortion, with penalties of up to two years imprisonment for both providers and patients.

Bill C-43 passed in the House by a margin of nine votes, but in the wake of publicity around a death due to a botched home abortion, and mass public demonstrations by reproductive rights activists, Bill C-43 failed to achieve a majority in the Senate. It was never resurrected by Mulroney or any successive government. Since then, government policy has either steered clear of controversial right-wing policy, or has given it a moderate disguise.

Though Liberal and Conservative governments found these abortion debates politically treacherous, fundamentalist anti-choice activists did not, revealing a disturbingly extremist face of the religious right. Not content to simply bully and harass clients and staff entering reproductive health facilities, they turned to violence -- what the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service refers to as "single issue terrorism." Sniper attacks, bombings, anthrax threats, assault, kidnapping and murder became the tools of anti-choice activists.

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, who opened his first abortion clinic in Montreal in 1969, spent decades fighting for women’s right to safe, accessible, publicly-funded abortion services. In 1988 he finally won his challenge against Federal abortion law, but that didn‘t spell the end of the struggle for accessible abortion.

After enduring years of death threats and physical attacks, the Morgentaler’s Toronto clinic was firebombed in 1992. No one was hurt, and all scheduled abortions were moved to other facilities, but the building was destroyed. 

Now, 25 years later, the struggle for accessible abortion services continues, with women, particularly rural women, facing numerous obstacles when seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

Abortion paradise and tolerant nation? Canada is not

In its 2007 report Reality Check, Canadians for Choice noted that access to abortion services in hospitals is actually declining over time. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of hospitals providing abortion services decreased by two per cent and, overall, only one in six hospitals in Canada offer abortion services.

The report notes that "in rural Canada, which takes up the most area in our country, there are hardly any services." In all of Manitoba there are only two hospitals providing abortion services -- and both are in urban areas. A woman from northern Manitoba would have to travel hundreds of kilometres, a trip that would be cost-prohibitive for many rural women.

Prince Edward Island does not provide any abortion services whatsoever. Even attempting to locate such services can prove to be an immense barrier.

One member of Canadians for Choice revealed that when she phoned hospitals to ask about abortion services, she was confronted with hostile and judgemental healthcare providers. "Many times throughout the course of this study, and in every province, I was hung up on, laughed at, told that no one would want to talk to me, was referred to anti-choice organizations and was told many myths and inaccuracies about what would happen if I terminated a pregnancy."

The influence of the extreme right doesn’t stop at reproductive rights.

In the 1970s and 1980s, hate groups became increasingly visible. The activities of notorious Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel and groups like the Heritage Front with their unabashed public support for the white power movement, proved to be a litmus test for Canada’s relatively new anti-hate legislation enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, like Morgentaler’s 1988 victory, Canada’s anti-hate legislation did not end the threat of right-wing extremist influence. Canada’s hate speech laws continue to be challenged by free speech advocates. Most recently, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a ruling early in 2013 against anti-gay hate-propagandist Bill Whatcott.

Challenges to reproductive rights and hate speech legislation aren’t high profile -- your average Canadian may not even be aware that reproductive choice is still at risk, or that hate speech remains a part of the freedom of speech debate.

Canadians, perhaps in their anxiety to believe their own propaganda in the face of the increasing validation of Tea Party views by the American public, seem to be reassured by the upholding of humans rights legislation, hate speech laws and the lack of substantial challenge to Canada’s Federal abortion law.

However, according to award-winning journalist Marci McDonald, this complacency is a mistake.

In her book The Armageddon Factor, a follow-up to her McDonald 2006 Walrus article, she writes, "From the moment I began this book, I was confronted by skeptics who insist that a truly influential religious right could never take root in Canada."

McDonald counters that with funding from conservative Christian philanthropists, grassroots organizations espousing evangelical Christian values have amassed huge databases and sophisticated social networking strategies that can instantly mobilize support for specific legislations. By creating internship programs, they’re training a new cadre of media-savvy activists and individuals who have infiltrated top jobs in the public service. They are the PR machine that props up the agenda of Harper "theo-cons."

Advocacy groups and think-tanks like the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), the Canadian Constitution Foundation, Physicians for Life and the Frasier Institute are well-funded and well-placed to lobby for anti-abortion legislation. They are the counterparts to the Charles G. Koch Foundation in the U.S. which, under the auspices of the group Freedom Partners, grants millions of dollars to anti-choice groups like Americans United for Life Action and the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, which spent $2 million on ads supporting anti-choice candidates during state and federal elections in 2010.

Giving a voice to the anti-choice

Perhaps more disturbing is the Canadian media’s adoption of the language of the religious right. They give anti-choice activists and gun lobbyists a voice, exposing the right-wing myth of the "liberal media" for the fairy tale that it is.

The Conservative base’s anti-choice policy is framed as objection to "gender-selection abortions," its euphemism for assisted suicide is "euthanasia" and these terms are making there way into the mainstream media.

In a Postmedia article, journalist Mark Kennedy co-opts the deceptively moderate terminology of the religious right. Reporting on this year’s Conservative policy convention, he lists  "condemnation of gender-selection abortions and euthanasia, and protection of the rights of gun owners" as among the many policy doctrines put forward by the Conservative grassroots.

Kennedy fails to provide any analysis and seems content to simply parrot the Conservative base. Arch-conservative Sun Media talking head Brian Lilley has proclaimed Sun News as "the strongest voice for the pro-life cause on television in Canada" and few would argue his point.

Another Sun Media personality, Ezra Levant, once did an internship early in his journalistic career that was funded by -- wait for it -- the anti-choice Charles G. Koch Foundation.

Claiming to be a libertarian, Levant is a rabid free-speech proponent. He once called Roma people, among other things, a "shiftless group of hobos" and accused them of being a group of criminals.

When Toronto’s Roma Community Centre filed a hate crime complaint with police in 2012, Toronto police attempted to file hate charges against Levant, but were overruled by the Attorney General of Ontario because they felt a trial would become a media circus.

So much for upholding hate speech laws.

Numerous Canadians expressed outrage over the entire debacle, but before long Levant’s hate-filled screed was largely forgotten. Canadians returned to their "Canada is tolerant" default position, once again secure in the knowledge that Canada is morally superior to the U.S.

Oh, we're not so different

Unfortunately, the difference between the religious right in Canada and our neighbours to the south is not so much doctrinal as it is window dressing. The Tea Party’s "late term abortion" red herring with its attendant gruesome imagery very much parallels the "gender-selection" trope of the Conservative base in Canada. It’s a matter of media and public relations, knowing your audience and playing to its sympathies.

The Tea Party may be content to beat people over the head to get their pro-life agenda across, but the religious right in Canada is, in some ways, more subtle and subversive, and should be carefully scrutinized for their influence in government.

We can no longer afford to deny that Canada has fully as well-organized and well-funded an evangelical policy and opinion-influencing machine as the United States. Ours is just more polite.

 

Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble. 

Photo: flickr/infomatique 

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