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UCP gets ready to make its first move to restrict reproductive rights

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Peace River MLA Dan Williams being sworn into office. Image: Dan Williams/Facebook

Does anyone recall when Cameron Wilson, political action director of the "Wilberforce Project," previously known as Pro-Life Alberta, bragged that "if the UCP wins the upcoming election, then we will have the most pro-life legislature in decades, and maybe ever"?

That was only in February this year, a century or two ago in political time, just before the April 16 election brought the United Conservative Party to power and installed, just as Wilson predicted, the largest contingent of MLAs determined to roll back women's reproductive rights in Alberta history.

It's possible a larger percentage of Alberta MLAs might have unthinkingly opposed such rights in the first half of the 20th century, but that was a different era -- or, at least, it was until Jason Kenney and his social conservative legion made their way into power, ably assisted by the right-wing echo chamber of the mainstream media.

Albertans didn't hear the muffled warnings of the former NDP government's supporters. The NDP campaign itself passed over this important issue far too lightly for hard-to-understand reasons. Media was never much interested in that narrative.

For its part, Alberta journalists couldn't be bothered trying to identify which of Premier Kenney's candidates were affiliated with the deceptively titled Wilberforce group, named for 18th and 19th century anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.

Wilson, slyly giving his report to his members, which remains on the group's website, prudently kept mum on that point.

As for Kenney himself, an anti-abortion crusader throughout his adult life, he stuck to the talking point his government would never revisit the issue, although of course his MLAs could always introduce whatever private member's bills they wished.

Since then, the large contingent of so-called pro-lifers in the Alberta legislature has been very, very quiet.

Obviously, they were waiting for last month's federal election to be over, and for Andrew Scheer, their man in Ottawa where the real damage to reproductive rights could be done, to become prime minister.

Fortunately for Canada, that didn't happen. Liberal Justin Trudeau remains the PM. Federal laws protecting reproductive rights are likely safe for the time being. Scheer, still the Opposition leader, faces attacks by ambitious party rivals.

Scheer, like Kenney a longtime anti-reproductive-rights campaigner, tried during the campaign to hide behind the same private-member's-bill dodge. However, more federal voters must have cottoned onto the reality, illuminated by the Harper government's drive to pass anti-union legislation, that not all private member's bills are created equal.

Alert readers will recall how Bill C-377 started life in December 2011 as a private member's bill. In reality, the legislation to tie up unions in reporting red tape was a government bill from the get-go in all but legal status. As Speaker, Scheer made sure in 2013 it survived into the second session of the 41st Parliament. Harper's government saw to it that it was passed in December 2012. The Liberals repealed it in June 2017.

With last month's federal vote out of the way, the time seems to have come for the UCP's large anti-reproductive-rights caucus to get the Alberta government, as Wilson put it back in February, "on track to enacting pro-life policy."

Yesterday, we learned the still-uncounted UCP anti-abortion caucus is about to make its first move with the introduction of a private member's bill to reopen the debate about physicians' rights to assert religious "conscience rights" if they don't want to refer patients to doctors who will provide abortions, contraception or medically-assisted death.

The bill will be introduced today by Peace River MLA Dan Williams, who was noted participating in the May 9 March for Life in Edmonton at which Catholic high school students from throughout the province were bused to the legislature on the taxpayers' dime.

According to a Star Edmonton report yesterday, Williams stoutly denies the NDP's accusation the bill is a back-door manoeuvre to undermine rights to abortion and contraception. The possessor of what must be the least informative official biography in the UCP caucus insisted he's just trying "to protect the charter rights that individuals have and access to all these services will continue afterwards as before -- no changes."

Since the rights in question are already enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and have been upheld by the courts, it strains credulity to believe the legislature is being asked to waste its time on such a matter unless some other agenda is in play.

In this case, since this ploy is a well-understood part of the anti-choice playbook, it is certain the bill is an attempt to do just what the NDP says: find a way to limit access to abortion services and contraception, and open the Overton window for more of the same.

This is just the first move. It's unlikely to be the last. Welcome to Gilead North.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Dan Williams/Facebook

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