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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Relax, abortion rights are safe Add to ...

I have good news for those of you who are pro-choice, and for my many worried friends. Abortion rights in Canada are not under threat. Please ignore the headlines, the giant anti-abortion rally in Ottawa last week, all stories about Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge and the large amounts of airtime devoted to the theory that the Christian right is steadily tightening its insidious grip on the Prime Minister's Office. Abortion rights in Canada are safe, despite all the folks who want to tell you otherwise.

Through a happy set of circumstances, we have a legal vacuum on abortion, which is to say no law at all. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down the old law 22 years ago, and parliamentarians couldn't agree on a new one. Some people think the absence of a law is terrible. In fact, it's wonderful, because it has allowed a broad social consensus to shape actual practice. Most Canadians think there should be some restrictions on abortion, and, informally, there are. Virtually no late-term abortions - the rarest and most contentious kind - are performed here, even though they're legal. Access to abortion isn't always as good as it should be, but that's a practical issue, not a legal one.

Absolutists on both sides are unhappy with the status quo. But most Canadians aren't absolutists. The last thing they want is to open up another fruitless, polarized debate that would change no minds. "The country doesn't really want to be torn apart by that," says Lydia Miljan, a political science professor at the University of Windsor. She argues that even a large Conservative majority (which is highly unlikely) wouldn't make a difference. Even Stephen Harper knows the issue is both irresolvable and toxic. It is almost as divisive within political parties as among them

For these reasons, Mr. Harper has repeatedly said he's not going to go there. But then, inadvertently, he went there. His maternal-health initiative was supposed to be a feel-good measure for the G8 and G20 summer summits. What could possibly be more warm and fuzzy than Third World mothers? But it blew up in his face, just like his dopey idea to gender-neutralize the national anthem. Within one news cycle, he was caught in the crossfire of an ideological war about abortion. Then came Hillary, wagging her accusatory finger. And instead of making him look female-friendly, the maternal-health fiasco only reinforced my friends' suspicion that this man is truly scary.

Those fears are being energetically stoked by pro-choice groups that want us to believe that our own rights are being threatened too here in Canada. "There are small attempts everywhere at silencing women," one pro-choice leader declared. As further proof, critics cite the numerous private member's bills that want to restrict abortion rights - even though these bills, like all the ones that came before them, are destined for oblivion. "There is a growing consensus Ottawa is moving inexorably toward a vote on abortion law," warned a front-page story in the Toronto Star, which went on to quote a bunch of anti-abortion MPs. In fact, the only people who hold this view is them. The real consensus - the one shared by most Canadians - is that our legal vacuum works pretty well, so let's not mess with it.

It's clear that in some ways the Conservatives are flexing their socially conservative muscles. No dough for Toronto's Pride Parade. No dough for the international wing of Planned Parenthood. Does this mean we should be as alarmed as Marci McDonald, who argues in her new book, The Armageddon Factor, that the religious right is mounting a stealth takeover? Or does it merely mean that we've got hysterics on both ends of the spectrum who like to demonize each other?

The truth is that this scare has been massively overblown. Canada is not Kentucky, and my friends and I won't have to chain ourselves to fences any time soon. My advice is to relax - and write a cheque to Planned Parenthood.

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