Abortion issue heats up in Canada

At the anti-abortion coalition headquarters in Toronto, several candidates seeking political party nominations to run as members of the federal Parliament call each week to ask for support. James Hughes, president of the Campaign Life Coalition, terms this ``an interesting phenomena,'' one reflecting the possibility that abortion could be an important issue in a federal election should it be called later this year.

The issue was shoved into the hands of Parliament last January when the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a portion of the federal criminal code that allowed abortions only after a hospital committee determined a woman's life or health was in danger.

By a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that the law threatens the health of women by forcing them to undergo painful and utterly arbitrary delays to obtain an abortion. Since the law was struck down, abortion is fully legal.

The pro-choice movement rejoiced and by last month agreed that the situation should be left just as it is - without a law.

``Why do we have to have legislation?'' asks Norma Scarborough, president of the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League. ``Women don't abort viable fetuses for frivolous reasons and doctors don't abort viable fetuses for frivolous reasons.''

The Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has not introduced any abortion legislation yet.

Ms. Scarborough's group has joined with the Canadian Labor Congress, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and a dozen or so smaller groups to oppose any new federal abortion law. The coalition says any limits should be imposed only by medical authorities under their professional codes.

On the other side, the Campaign Life Coalition is campaigning for a law prohibiting any abortion unless necessary to save a women's life. Mr. Hughes says the court decision has given pro-life advocates ``a unique opportunity'' to win passage of a law giving an unborn child ``full legal protection from the moment of conception.''

Hughes claims to have the backing of 40 percent of the 282 members of Parliament. He threatens to run or support pro-life candidates in all 282 constituencies if Prime Minister Brian Mulroney does not back an anti-abortion statute. A Christian Heritage Party has been set up with a pro-life platform. Hughes expects less support from the Liberal and mildly socialist New Democratic parties.

Speaking of the pro-life campaign, he says, ``We have our sleeves rolled up. We know the good Lord is with us all the time.''

Ms. Scarborough doubts the accuracy of the 40 percent claim, noting that a pro-life party, the Family Coalition Party, won only 4 percent of the vote during a provincial election in Ontario last year. She sees ``no possibility'' of an outright ban on abortions.

The government is nervous that the abortion will, as one high official put it, ``hijack the election,'' with pro-life protagonists sounding off at each campaign meeting. The government is expected to call an election later this year.

A Gallup poll in February showed 13 percent of the public supports making abortion illegal under any circumstance, 28 percent in favor of making it legal under any circumstance, and 55 percent wanting it legal under certain circumstances. Two percent had no opinion.

With this in mind, the government's first approach was to seek some consensus within the Conservative Party caucus and with the provinces on a law that would regulate abortions according to the gestation period.

But federal and provincial justice ministers, meeting in Saskatoon March 18, could not reach an agreement. And the caucus proved to be badly divided.

Bruce Phillips, director of communications for Mr. Mulroney, says the government's ``general disposition'' is to propose a new law. But it hasn't decided on what to propose; nor on whether to call a free vote allowing each member of Parliament (MP) to vote according to his own conscience or political disposition. Under the parliamentary system, MPs are usually subject to party discipline and vote according to their party's position.

Presumably the government could put off introducing legislation until after an election. But pro-life advocates aim to keep the pressure for action on parliamentarians by lobbying, picketing, and letter writing.

Pro-choice advocates have been conducting their own campaign.

Meanwhile, the abortion situation across the nation remains highly confused, according to the Abortion Rights Action League. Despite the Supreme Court decision, restrictions on abortion remain in several other provinces.

In British Columbia, Premier William Vander Zalm, an ardent anti-abortionist, last week (April 6) announced a $20 million public program to discourage abortion and encourage family life.

The B.C. Supreme Court had earlier struck down a provincial Cabinet regulation eliminating public financing of most abortions.

But populous Ontario and Quebec provide and pay for abortions under provincial medical plans.

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