Justin Trudeau plays the long game on abortion
May 16, 2014

Justin Trudeau plays the long game on abortion

The general response to Justin Trudeau's new edict on abortion - that all new Liberal candidates must vote pro-life - has been overwhelmingly negative. Canada's major newspapers' editorial pages have lit up with titles like Margarete Wente's "Spare me the abortion absolutism" at the Globe and Mail, Andrew Coyne's "Trudeau ban on pro-lifers implies the issue is settled. It isn’t." at the National Post and the ever colourful Rosie DiMano's "Justin Trudeau imposes ethical lobotomy on Liberals" at the Toronto Star.

Much of the criticism is, at least, overstated. More importantly, there is a significant upside: it creates a strong defense of our pro-choice society that prevents us slipping into a US-style abortion war and the significant consequences for women that have resulted from that.

The Liberals currently have 35 seats in the House of commons. They want to quintuple that in the next election. If that happens, that is a whole lot of new Liberal MPs, MPs who are unlikely to have a whole lot of respect for the policy resolutions back when the Liberals were but a skeleton crew. A majority of these would likely have been pro-choice anyways, but a nontrivial portion may well not have been.

Justin Trudeau is playing the long game. He is ensuring that the next generation of politicians - should his hopes of a mandate come to pass - will be one which is firmly pro-choice. He won't have to be embarrassed - as Harper has been - by unruly backbenchers hoping to force the issue, particularly a coalition between pro-life Conservatives and Liberals which could be particularly disruptive without Harper's icy grip on the issue. A wall is being erected that prevents a US-style abortion war from cropping up in the future.

Buried in Wente's piece is a ridicule that the above is even necessary:
"(They’re also hoping they can get nervous urbanites to believe that only they stand between us and a debilitating U.S.-style abortion war.)"
Colour me one of said nervous urbanites.  There is one major reason why we don't have US-style abortion war: Stephen Harper - to the chagrin of more than a few of his backbenchers - saw the optics correctly and locked down the possibility of any discussion at the federal level for a decade. Harper is himself pro-life, but he made that tactical decision to not have an abortion culture war in his legacy. Not wanting to risk him changing his mind, the Liberals and the NDP have parroted over and over the idea that any form of discussion at the federal level on abortion is inappropriate.

Many Canadians, particularly many conservative Canadians, are prolife. I don't think it is beyond the pale to think that under new Conservative leadership precisely such a culture war could break out. Because Canada doesn't have any established legislative rules on abortion - which is rare among developed countries - it is very easy to imagine a slippery slope that begins with bringing up bogeymen - liked sex selective abortion - to increasing conditions on abortion providers to trying to make certain third trimester restrictions and builds from there.

As a long time follower of the US abortion war, I know it has real consequences. We have seen them go down exactly this slippery slope. Significant restrictions on the access to abortion, embarrassing and punitive loops that women must jump through, and the like have been able to occur in the US.

Overstated criticism:
One major point of criticism is that this is a top down shutting of the debate, antithetical to the kind of grassroots openness and decentralization Trudeau was a champion for in his leadership campaign. This charge is, I think, overstated.

What his edict really is is a promise to whip potential future votes. Parties whip votes all the time, on all sorts of issues. Indeed, parties are organized based on shared ideas and members are loosely expected to agree on the big points otherwise they can run for other parties. The leadership gets tasked with choosing if and when particular issues are important enough to hold whipped votes over, and acts accordingly. All of this is standard across all parties.

People are as welcome to debate it as they ever have, they are as welcome to vote based on it as they ever have. Parties, however, are organized over sets of issues, and this one is - quite reasonably, for the reasons given above - being given a certain level of importance, a level of centrality to the party that it didn't quite have before. If that doesn't align with your views, then you don't have to vote for that party. But there hasn't been a stifling - let alone DiMano's "lobotomizing" - of the ethical autonomy of a single person.

Harper allows people into his party regardless of their view on the issue. However, he doesn't let them make an issue about it in parliament. Backbenchers are firmly told to be quiet and keep it to themselves. Is this meant to be lobotomizing them as well? The effect is pretty similar.

One more point in the "bold" column:
As I have noted before, Justin Trudeau is certainly not afraid to act, as he boldly did when he kicked Liberal Senators out of his caucus. The political wisdom in either case can be debated, but one thing is certain: he is not afraid to ruffle feathers in the interest of what he thinks is best.

This isn't a decision where he is trying to score some short term points - the way the NDP's abortion resolution was meant to embarrass the Liberals for short term gain. Surely he knows that raising this at this time is going to result in blowback. However, he has decided that the long term benefits outweigh the short term gain. I think he is right. 

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Anonymous said...

I have to roll my eyes at supposed "liberals" who claim that they are "pro-choice", who then post about how pro-choice they are with the following exceptions, and then go on to list quite a few exceptions, proving that they do not indeed respect a woman's right to choose. There may some day be some cases that we wish had turned out differently, but at the end of the day, a woman should be able to chose whether or not to become a parent. Anything less puts a woman in a situation of being forced to give birth against her will. Nothing is perfect, and people certainly aren't. But you either trust women to make decisions about their reproduction and their lives, or you don't. I am delighted that Trudeau has seen this, and has told the Liberal Party that it's candidates either respect a woman's decision about her reproduction, or they find another party. Is it whipping the vote ahead of time? Well, then no one can say they weren't warned about what is expected of them. And frankly, I'm not hearing too many horror stories about the current situation about women running about willy-nilly asking for abortions because the wind has changed. I am hearing horror stories about women who lack resources to travel to clinics even within their own province being unfairly expensed with procedures that should be available at any regional health centre.

Anonymous said...

I think you try to hard to downplay the significance of Trudeau's decision. "What his edict really is is a promise to whip potential future votes. Parties whip votes all the time, on all sorts of issues." Can you name two other policies passed by the Liberal Party that Trudeau has declared you must abide by in order to be a candidate?

bazie said...

Anything in the Charter of rights and freedoms, marriage equality, no racists/sexists, and so on. They are freer on a range of economic views, but when it comes to social issues they (like the other parties) aren't going to accept people far outside of party views. Which makes perfect sense, there is little point in having members of a party whose views lie far outside of the party.

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