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Prime Minister Stephen Harper waits to speak at a campaign event in St. John's on Thursday April 21, 2011. The Prime Minster said he would not reopen the abortion debate. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waits to speak at a campaign event in St. John's on Thursday April 21, 2011. The Prime Minster said he would not reopen the abortion debate. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Why should women believe what Stephen Harper says about abortion? Add to ...

If the Conservatives manage to win a majority, are Canadian women about to have unprotected relations with an emboldened government, one that may pose a serious threat to their reproductive rights?

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, who despite the NDP juggernaut still seems to be counting on a majority, desperately wants you to believe that any anxiety over access to abortion under a Tory majority is just unnecessary (kind of like the election itself).

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In a "read my lips," not to mention a " l'état, c'est moi" moment last week, Mr. Harper declared that the abortion debate would definitely not be reopened "as long as I'm Prime Minister."

He was responding to an indiscreet campaign boast by Conservative candidate Brad Trost (Saskatoon- Humboldt) that Mr. Trost had been instrumental in denying the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) government funding because it supported abortion.

But why should Canadian women believe Stephen Harper when he says he and his government won't reopen the issue? Surely, by denying financial support to groups who support access to abortion, he already has reopened that debate.

The Tories deny that a funding decision has been made; indeed, the IPPF has been waiting for 18 months for word of its funding and so far, nothing. This stealth approach to withdrawing funds to any group that doesn't fit the Tories' ideological framework could have made for a pointed campaign slogan: "It's about the defunding, stupid."

The abortion debate took an intriguing turn this week when on the same day, both anti-abortion and pro-choice factions warned that a Harper majority may not have their interests at heart. (They can't both be right, can they?)

In an interview with the Globe's Jane Taber, Charles McVety, evangelical leader and Christian activist said: "Frankly, my fear for Stephen Harper is that being so overt standing against the pro-lifers, he risks not motivating Conservative voters." In other words, come on Stephen, throw the base a few more bones or we may desert you.

Meanwhile, at a press conference organized by the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), spokeswoman Carolyn Egan argued that, because "two-thirds of Harper's caucus is anti-choice," private legislation limiting access to abortion "could easily pass in a majority."

In a subsequent phone interview, Ms. Egan outlined why 2011 is different from both 2006 and 2008, when her organization also warned the public that a Harper government could make inroads into curtailing abortion rights.

"We now have some concrete things to point to," said Ms. Egan, detailing the Harper government's controversial decision last year not to fund any groups that offered access to abortion in their global maternal health package, and a severely restricted access to abortion in New Brunswick that pro-choice advocates say violates the Canada Health Act - women have to pay out of pocket for abortions if they go to a private clinic. Then there is a succession of anti-abortion private member's bills, one of which, Bill C-510, enjoyed support from 87 members of the Tory caucus and several cabinet ministers, even though Harper had asked his cabinet to vote against it.

If his MPs don't listen to him in a minority situation, how will being solidly in power bring them to heel? Short answer, it won't. Besides, depending on the outcome of the election, there is no iron-clad guarantee Mr. Harper would serve out his full term and after him, then what?

Ms. Egan added, "This issue may be a sideline for Mr. Harper but it's not for some of his ministers," pointing to Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, as perhaps the most ardent anti-choice minister presumably remaining in cabinet.

Mr. Kenney doesn't exactly hide his views, but not every potential voter has seen the press clippings and a YouTube video provided by the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics, that show him in his student days at the Catholic-run San Francisco University (SFU) in 1989 and 1990: He so vigorously tried to shut down a pro-choice group from speaking on his campus that he made the CNN news.

Back then, Mr. Kenney also authored an editorial in a student newspaper that likened allowing pro-choice supporters to talk on campus to permitting the Ku Klux Klan or "the Church of Satan" to do the same.

So imagining Mr. Kenney at the helm of a Tory government makes Stephen Harper look like Jack Layton. Except he's not. During this campaign, both the NDP's Jack Layton and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff have reiterated their support for "a woman's right to choose." Mr. Harper, however, has never publicly affirmed he believes in a right that the majority of Canadians support.

To add yet another frisson to the question of whether access to abortion would be secure under a Tory majority, my favourite rabble-rouser, novelist Margaret Atwood, reflected in an op-ed this week in the Toronto Star: "This government is deeply traumatized by women's reproductive organs." Atwood flatly stated Mr. Harper "should allow" a debate on abortion. "All aspects of this troublesome question - and it has been troublesome throughout history, as there are no lovely answers - should be thoroughly discussed," she wrote.

While that might be one way to flush out Stephen Harper's real stance on reproductive freedom, most Canadians, wary of an extremely polarizing debate, do not want to revisit this issue.

But that still doesn't quell the queasy feeling many women have about how a Harper majority would affect their access to abortion and to groups who support all facets of family planning. "It's a huge issue," says a friend. "I can't imagine any woman not taking this seriously."

To take this issue down to its most private level, where such decisions really belong, you might say that to believe Mr. Harper and a Tory majority absolutely won't mess with your reproductive rights would be almost as risky as, in the heat of the moment, trusting a man who whispers, "Don't worry, I will pull out in time."

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