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Andrew Steele

Advise and consent Add to ...

In the United States, abortion is a central issue of the current political cleavage, stereotypically placing pro-life Republicans against pro-choice Democrats.

In Canada, the issue is both less central to the debate between the parties, and less of a litmus test for the parties themselves. Neither the governing Conservatives nor opposition Liberals have a platform position on abortion, nor are they interested in upsetting the current détente on the issue.

Part of the reason for the low-profile of abortion as a political issue is the strong majority of the public in favour of legal access to the procedure. While in the United States neither the pro-choice nor pro-life side can consistently command a majority of public support, the issue is more settled north of the border. Depending on the question asked, somewhere between half and three-quarters of Canadians favour access.

As a result of this 20-year consensus, attempts to limit access to abortion procedures have moved away from a general approach to a more narrow-cast legislative agenda.

One of the more interesting examples in the Ontario was the 1996 vote on a private-members bill introduced by Progressive Conservative MPP (and recent runner-up for the leadership of the Ontario party) Frank Klees. The legislation called for parental notification prior to any abortion provided to a minor.

The argument in favour of parental notification rests on the core value that parents have a right to know what their children are doing. The argument against rests on the core value that patients have a right to privacy, and this extends to minors.

Parental consent laws are in place in more than half of U.S. states, but such regulation is far rarer in Canada. The technical reasons is that abortion in Canada is typically regulated through general medical legislation, leaving procedures like parental consent to the service provider. Most service providers choose to observe their patient's ethical right to medical confidentiality, even in cases where that patient is a minor.

But the underlying reason is the general consensus to avoid abortion-related issues between the major parties.

What makes the legislation fascinating is less the bill itself, which is off-the-shelf for North American public policy in this area, but the recorded vote. This is one of the few bills on abortion to come to a recorded vote in a legislature in the past twenty years, and one of two in the Ontario legislature.

Thirty-four MPPs voted in favour of the bill, all Conservatives, including current federal cabinet ministers John Baird and Tony Clement. Unexpectedly, current federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty - who was pilloried for his pro-life views during the 2002 Ontario PC leadership race - voted against the legislation.

It is also of note that current PC Party leader Tim Hudak supported the legislation.

Klees's recent leadership campaign was fueled in part by a network of anti-abortion activists. His surprisingly strong showing may lend interest to the PC Party (and the federal Conservatives) in moving away from the current consensus to a more explicit or just implied pro-life position.

Hudak made some nods in this direction during the leadership.

He uses the old George W. Bush trick of dog whistling to a born-again audience by peppering terms like "blessed" and "grace" throughout his speeches; terms that are just colourful language to a secular audience but catch the attention of a more evangelized ear. Stephen Harper did a similar trick in 2006, ending all his speeches with "God Bless Canada."

Lost in the kerfuffle over Human Rights Commissions was Mr. Hudak's leadership campaign pledge for income splitting in the tax system. The policy is very popular among some evangelical political activists because it helps parents fulfill "our roles as biblical husbands and wives where the husband is called to work and provide for the family and the wife is called to be in the home caring for the family."

Despite some rhetoric and minor policy promises, Hudak faces a real challenge with mobilizing evangelicals. The faith based funding and private school tax credit proposals for religious education were both shot down, and won't be revisited any time soon. This leaves few options for maintaining support among this key Conservative demographic.

We almost definitely will not see Hudak go so far as to promote defunding of private abortion clinics, but a policy like parental notification might hold enough public support to serve as a proxy to the evangelical voters the PCs need to keep voting for them.

The public opinion environment around parental notification is uncertain in Canada. There hasn't been much public polling on the topic in the past few years.

But in California, where around two in three voters are pro-choice, 68 per cent favoured parental notification laws when the issue is kept out of a partisan context. (Support tends to fall as Democratic politicians campaign against the measure.)

It is reasonable to posit that support for parental notification tends to be much stronger than support for restricting general access to abortion procedures, and that it likely is the case that a majority support such a law outside of a partisan debate context here in Ontario.

Based on more comprehensive public opinion research, it is plausible that the Ontario PC Party may choose parental notification as its measure for maintaining support among evangelicals in the 2011 election, but that is far from certain.

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