In the very unlikely event the Harper government would be foolish enough to raise the issue of abortion in the Commons, Canadian women can count on Quebeckers to be the first at the barricades to prevent its recriminalization.
As those opposed to abortion were flexing their muscles recently, encouraged by the decision of the federal government to exclude funding for abortion services from its G8 maternal health initiative, the three parties represented in Quebec's National Assembly unanimously passed a motion supporting "the right of women to free choice and free and accessible abortion," and calling on Ottawa to end its "ambiguity" on the issue.
For a long time, the province has been at the forefront of the freedom of choice fight. It is here that Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a Quebecker, started his lonely crusade before being vindicated by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988.
"The consensus expressed in the National Assembly reflects the consensus in Quebec society," said Premier Jean Charest. Indeed, a Léger Marketing survey shows 94 per cent of Quebeckers are against the position of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who strongly came out against abortion in a recent speech to an anti-abortion convention. He said abortion is a moral crime, even in cases of rape. His speech raised a huge storm of protest from all quarters, including the centre-right provincial party, the Action Démocratique du Québec.
"I'm blue with rage. [The cardinal]should be ashamed of himself," said Dr. Gaétan Barrette, the head of the federation of specialist physicians, an organization that includes gynecologists who would find themselves in a terrible position if abortion were to be recriminalized.
The media instantly filled with incendiary commentaries against Cardinal Ouellet. He was compared to an Iranian imam and crudely told to "shut up." One columnist, attacking the cardinal's view on euthanasia, wrote that he wished the cardinal "a long and painful death." Some of the attacks were brimming with personal insults, some of them too vulgar to be reprinted here.
The scene was akin to a symbolic "lynching," noted Christian Rioux, a columnist from Le Devoir, one of a very small handful of commentators who defended Cardinal Ouellet's right to express his opinion. Indeed, it's hardly surprising that a Catholic bishop would condemn abortion. If someone thinks human life starts at conception, then of course he will see abortion as murder whatever the circumstances.
In any case, there certainly was no need to launch such an attack on a man who doesn't represent a threat to the partisans of free choice. Cardinal Ouellet is already marginalized. He is the only vocal anti-abortion supporter in the Quebec Catholic hierarchy (the others cautiously refrain from raising the abortion issue) and the large majority of practising Catholics are in favour of access to abortion, at least during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (However, many people, notwithstanding their personal beliefs, would not approve of abortions performed at the stage when the fetus is viable outside the mother's womb.)
On the day after the National Assembly's motion supporting abortion rights, Prime Minister Stephen Harper let it be known that he would force his MPs to vote against any private member's bill aimed at recriminalizing abortion in Canada. This is a sharp break with tradition - normally, MPs are not bound by party lines on matters of conscience. But this shows how far Mr. Harper is ready to go to reassure the partisans of free choice - if only because they are the majority of voters.
No government that wants to get re-elected would dare touch the explosive issue of abortion - at least when it concerns Canadian women. The foreign women to whom the Harper government is refusing to fund access to safe abortions don't vote here, so there is no political cost in denying them a right granted to Canadian women two decades ago. How illogical! And what a scandal it is.