Now that he has reopened the abortion the debate – and, rest assured, Justin Trudeau has done so – what next? Who wins, who loses?
Trudeau himself is both a winner and a loser.
At the centre of a Parliament Hill scrum a few days ago, the Liberal leader said “our position as a party is we do not reopen [the abortion] debate,” which was reasonable enough. Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 Morgentaler decision – which jettisoned criminal laws relating to abortion – successive Prime Ministers have carefully steered away from the issue, which is the third rail of Canadian politics.
Messrs. Mulroney, Chretien, Martin and Harper all vowed to never, ever reopen the abortion debate. And they didn’t. So Trudeau’s position was an eminently sensible one.
But, looking a bit unsure in that now-infamous scrum, Trudeau didn’t stop there. As reporters’ eyebrows went up, Trudeau said: “We are steadfast in our belief [in the Liberal Party], it is not for any government to legislate what a woman chooses to do with her body. That is the bottom line.” And then, leaping into the abyss, he reopened the issue he had said he didn’t want to reopen.
Said he: “I have made it clear that future candidates need to be completely understanding that they will be expected to vote pro-choice on any bills.”
In the days since he uttered those words, Trudeau has been engaged in uninterrupted damage control. As bemused Conservatives and New Democrats looked on, Trudeau’s policy contortions have been something to behold. Over the past few days, Trudeau has said his party is pro-abortion, and its MPs are expected to vote that way without exception – but he has also decreed that anti-abortion candidates are welcome, and (presumably) so too anti-abortion thoughts. That is, pro-choice if necessary, but not necessarily always pro-choice.
If that makes no sense to you, rest assured: it makes sense to no one else, either.
While the pro-life and pro-choice forces typically disagree on everything, they probably now concur on two slender points. One, Justin Trudeau wasn’t telling the truth when he said he wouldn’t interfere in the selection of Liberal Party candidates – by telling them how they must vote on a matter of conscience, he was fundamentally involving himself with candidate selection. Two, he wasn’t telling the truth about not wanting to “reopen the abortion debate,” either – he has now done precisely that.
But Trudeau is not necessarily a loser, now. On Wednesday, Ottawa Bishop Christian Riesbeck told CBC that Trudeau’s stance was “unseemly.”
“It’s the fact that he considers himself to be a devout Catholic but then adheres to, or advocates for, abortion,” said Riesbeck. “That is scandalous.”
Scandalous? With that, the Bishop has mapped out an escape route for the relieved Trudeau. As Stockwell Day learned the hard way, Canadians favour a wall between Church and State. They don’t like politicians involving themselves overmuch with religion. And they don’t like the religious involving themselves, at all, in politics. As such, Bishop Riesbeck has gifted Trudeau’s relieved backroom with what they urgently needed: a way out of the mess they created for themselves.
Whenever the clergy start attacking me about something, a former Prime Minister once remarked to this writer, it helps get me re-elected. The same holds for Trudeau.
The Conservatives and the New Democrats have emerged as winners, too, and without doing very much. Pro-life voters will continue to gravitate to the Tories, convinced that there is no home for them with the Grits. And for those pro-choice folk who favour no ambiguity, they will find a home with the New Democrats.
So, who loses, at the end of this sad political melodrama?
Canadians, mostly. The majority of Canadians didn’t want the abortion issue re-opened. They didn’t want the rancour and ugliness it always brings. They didn’t want what is highly personal becoming, once again, the highly political.
Will they blame the Liberal leader for reopening the debate? Who knows. But one thing is for certain: it has not been Justin Trudeau’s finest hour.