The alarm being expressed around the world about Canada’s stunning decision to exclude abortion from its global maternal health commitment is totally appropriate. It represents a return — however symbolic in Canada — to barbarism. The whole notion that women, who fought for basic human rights for decades and then moved on to focus on other goals, could suddenly find themselves time-traveling over thirty years into the past is appalling.

But while it may seem barbaric to other civilized countries and to those in Canada who think human rights protection meant human progress, it has no such meaning for the religious right and large chunks of the Conservative Party. It’s hard to know how many Conservative Party members are old Reform Party stalwarts but my guess is that it’s a clear majority and getting stronger. There are no qualms here about reversing human rights — they never supported the concept in the first place.

We can trace it back to many aspects of the Reform Party but one event in particular stuck in my mind from researching my book on the Party back in 1991. It revealed a deep fear and even hatred of women in that party whose early conventions were characterized by a huge predominance of old, white men. The 1991 convention in Saskatoon was probably 85 per cent men or more.

One of the resolutions that made it to the floor was one dealing with violence against women. After a long debate (Manning intervened to ensure it passed) the convention passed a resolution stating that the party was opposed to violence against women. But before it was passed someone put forward an amendment to the effect that men engaging in such violence required punishment according to the law. It was overwhelmingly defeated. It was one thing to be against violence against women, it was quite something else to actually hold men accountable for their actions. After all, they might have had a good reason.

This is the sick and backward sentiment that Stephen Harper is playing to on the abortion issue. It is not just the protection of the fetus — it is the determination by Reform Conservatives to put women in their place — to deny them rights, to punish then for even thinking that they can exercise them. It is the politics of revenge — punishing women for the rights they have exercised over the past 30 to 40 years. It reveals a visceral reaction to modernity, secularism and humanism.

Liberal ineptness has allowed Harper to successfully frame the abortion issue as one blaming the Liberals for re-introducing the debate — an amazing accomplishment when you consider the deliberateness of the calculations Harper and his Christian lieutenants went through when deciding to unleash the issue on the country.

He continues to try to reintroduce the topic whenever he can. When he was doing a Q&A with 120 members of the G8/G20 National Youth Caucus he replied to a question re: excluding abortion from the maternal health initiative with this re-writing of history: “There are things that can be done, not controversial things, things that are not expensive. They can make a real significant difference in the lives of people around the world.”

First, he was unable to name any of the “things” he referred to and his off-the-cuff announcement of a maternal health initiative is as vague the day it was revealed: no program, no budget, no plan. But the statement also reveals a deliberate attempt to get the abortion debate going again. By referring to the right to choose as “controversial” Harper was deliberately stating that as far as he is concerned the issue has not been settled.

But it has been settled — long ago, by the government deciding to remove any mention of abortion in any legislation. It is simply a matter between a woman and her doctor.

And I have to wonder whether or not there was co-ordination between the PMO and Preston Manning’s recent intervention on the issue. Manning, you may recall, got Conservative pollster Allan Greg to do a little manipulating to make it look as though Canadians actually opposed a woman’s right to decide if she wants to give birth.

The poll “discovered” that 60 per cent of Canadians strongly agreed that abortion is morally wrong. But it did not ask whether people thought women should still have the right to decide. That question was posed a couple of weeks later by Ekos and that polling form revealed that nothing had changed regarding Canadians support of women’s rights: 52 per cent of Canadians describe themselves as “pro-choice;” 27 per cent say they are “pro-life” — numbers unchanged in ten years

As for excluding abortion in the government’s initiative a Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll conducted in May found that 58 per cent of respondents oppose Mr. Harper’s exclusion of abortion — up from about 46 per cent in March.

What’s the motivation here when Harper clearly knows these numbers and has no intention of introducing legislation to turn back the law? My guess is that he simply wants to energize his base — get them agitated, more satisfied about the state of politics in the country, and writing more checks to the party that speaks for them. Another way of looking at it is through Harper’s well-known strategy of identifying niche voting “markets” and going after them. In this case Harper, with Manning’s help, wants to get the women-hating vote locked up. The 70,000 deaths caused each year in the world due to botched abortions is clearly not too high a price to pay for that voting block.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...