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The abortion issue comes back to life Add to ...

Bart Stupak, having played a key role in the reform of health care for his fellow Americans, received a fax with a drawing of a noose and an anonymous voice mail saying, "You're dead. We know where you live. We'll get you." Abortion politics.

Take no prisoners. Seek no common ground, as the Michigan congressman had done - successfully - by securing enough votes from anti-abortion Democrats like himself to pass the health-care bill in exchange for the President Barack Obama's agreement to issue an executive order barring public funding of abortions.

For his efforts, Mr. Stupak was called a baby-killer in the House of Representatives by Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer, whose office proclaimed him "humbled by the supportive phone calls and e-mails he has received from his constituents and from people all over America." And on Wednesday, Mr. Obama signed the executive order - behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, this week in Ottawa, the federal Liberals tried to fracture the ruling Conservatives with a parliamentary motion slyly committing the government not to exclude abortion from its G8 project on global maternal health.

The motion caused hearts to race with anxiety in the office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who does his utmost to avoid entanglement with an issue on which his caucus has strong views. It boomeranged spectacularly, however, by fracturing the Liberals instead of the Conservatives and further undermining Michael Ignatieff's leadership.

Why something deemed a political sleeper issue in both countries can, when poked, so quickly come to life is not the mystery it might seem.

THE POLARIZED DEBATE

The great majority of Americans and Canadians prefer not to think about abortion, because the debate is so polarized.

In an interview, Notre Dame University law professor Carter Snead, former general counsel to the President's Council on Bioethics during George W. Bush's administration, called it "perhaps the most vexed question in all of American politics." But as Mr. Obama acknowledged in one of his first statements on taking office, abortion is a moral question - and moral questions never go away. At best, they put their heads down and nap: fitfully in the United States; somewhat more restfully in Canada, where divisiveness is held to be cultural anathema, to be avoided at all costs.

In spite of strong indications by Americans and Canadians that they are averse to a conspicuous debate about abortion, there is movement on the topic. Recent polls in the two countries have shown a decline - dramatically in the U.S., a barely perceptible erosion on this side of the border - in support for legal termination of pregnancies.

Only a slim majority of Canadians tell poll-takers they find abortion morally acceptable and want no change in the law. (Canada, in fact, has had no abortion law since 1988, when legislation was struck down by the Supreme Court.)

In the U.S., the Gallup organization said in May, 2009, that for the first time since it began polling on abortion in 1995, a majority of Americans are now opposed to legal abortion, and the authoritative Pew Research Center's annual religion and public life survey reported in October that increasing numbers of Americans across most demographic and political groups favour reducing abortions or making them harder to obtain.

The shift in U.S. numbers is more significant and more interesting than what is happening in Canada, and indicates the sensitivity of the American public's view of the issue in relation to the nation's political discourse. It's a factor in economic ideology, voting behaviour and, perhaps most importantly, perception of the President.

The decline in approval of legal abortion and rise in support for more restrictions on abortion parallel precisely the march of Mr. Obama into the presidency, leading the Pew Center to observe that there could be a connection.

There is no such caution in Prof. Snead's assessment. He says that, since taking office, Mr. Obama has undertaken a series of high-profile but fairly unpopular actions promoting abortion rights.

Those include revoking the so-called Mexico City Policy, which required all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion services as a method of family planning in other countries - not coincidentally the theme of the Liberal motion introduced into the House of Commons, which would have committed Mr. Harper to follow Mr. Obama's lead.

Mr. Obama indicated during the election, moreover, that he was opposed to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for most abortions covered under Medicaid. And Prof. Snead points out that the President has consistently selected high-profile abortion-rights advocates in all of his executive branch appointments relevant to the abortion question.

A CHANGE IN U.S. OPINION

In addition, he cites what he calls "somewhat of a sea change" in public opinion.

"First, I think the pro-life movement has been focusing on the developments in science and technology that confirm the biological status of the fetus as a living member of the species. New ultrasound technology has literally given a face to the unborn child.

"Also, the voices of the pro-life movement are younger, there are many younger women heading the movement, and their arguments go to both the well-being of the mother and unborn child. By contrast, the abortion-rights movement has been highly visible in opposition to very popular measures, including bans on intact dilation and partial birth abortions, parental involvement, enhanced informed-consent provisions for women seeking abortions, and the like. I think since the late 1990s, pro-lifers have seemed more reasonable in tone and substance."

The proposed health-care reforms were a match dropped on dry kindling.

The U.S. Senate bill, which did not prohibit public funding of abortions, brought the down the wrath of the bishops of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, who called it (and the subsequently Stupak-amended legislation) morally unacceptable. Because of the sharp rise in the country's Hispanic population, the numbers of Catholics are growing substantially.

Economic conservatives opposed to the government's entry into the health insurance market did their utmost to whip up religious anxiety over abortion, said Dennis Doyle of the University of Dayton, a leading scholar on the Catholic Church: "There is a big intersection between economic ideologues and the people who are most vehemently anti-abortion."

Prof. Snead and University of Toronto political scientist Renan Levine both note the significant gap across the American political and ethnic spectrum between those who approve of legal abortion and those who approve of public funding of abortion.

Prof. Levine called it one moral argument - the belief in a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion - encountering another moral argument, "one that says if you're going to pay for people to get abortions, it's going to be like the former Soviet Union where people skipped the whole condom thing and they just went into get an abortion every couple of months."

Prof. Snead called it "a typical American solution to divisive questions; on the one hand, the controversial practice is tolerated in the private sphere; but on the other hand, taxpayers are not to be compelled to support the practice with their own money."

He says the health-care bill that has now been signed subsidizes health-care plans that offer elective abortions, does not restrict directly funded community health centres from providing abortions and pays for abortions on aboriginal lands.

"An executive order cannot alter the plain meaning of a statute, nor can it extend an old law - the Hyde Amendment - to a new law - the health-care bill - to which it is inapplicable."

On both sides of the border, there are politicians with a careful eye on how voters in their electoral districts will respond to issues touching on abortion. Thus, while the federal Conservative caucus may be overwhelmingly anti-abortion, enough Liberal MPs were conscious of significant pockets of multicultural opponents to abortion in their ridings to abstain from voting on their party's motion.

If any "sea change" is taking place in Canadian public opinion on abortion, polls have yet to record it. Most of the published statistics are at least five years old and show either no change or only small declines in support for legal abortion and no change to our non-law - which may be the typical Canadian solution to a divisive issue: Don't do anything about it.

Margaret Somerville of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law says Canadians are showing more concern about the great moral issues of life and death. But the evidence at this point is largely anecdotal or extrapolative - for example, a population whose median age has increased from 26 to 41 in 50 years is likely to be more conservative, and Generation Y is supposed to have more conservative social values than Generation X, so therefore young Canadians may be less approving of abortion, and so on.

But the hard data are missing.

What's fascinating is the Prime Minister.

He is implacably opposed to reopening the abortion issue but has a vehemently pro-life caucus. It tells him that it may keep quiet 364 days of the year, but every so often it will insist on speaking out - as it did when abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler received the Order of Canada and when backbencher Ken Epp introduced his Unborn Victims of Crime private member's bill, and as it was prepared to do on the Liberals' motion.

The motion would have split the caucus if it hadn't been for anti-American references in the wording that the Conservatives found they all could agree to oppose and the media, to everyone's surprise, didn't question.

If the abortion issue now goes back to sleep, no one will be happier than Stephen Harper - with the possible exception of Barack Obama. He could be happier.

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