In political terms, the best – and safest – line on abortion is the one Bill Clinton came up with, some years ago.
“Abortion should not only be safe and legal,” said the former president, “it should be rare.”
That, pretty much, sums up the position on abortion of the three main Canadian political parties. Everyone aspires to live in a world where abortions are unnecessary, but everyone also accepts that we do not presently live in that world.
Not so long ago, the Liberals and the Conservatives were of a different view. They mostly opposed abortion, and they passed laws to reflect that view. Even the New Democrats had caucus members who were resolutely opposed to abortion.
Times changed. The courts pronounced, the politicians reversed. Nowadays, the law and the law-makers have come around to the Clinton line: safe, legal, rare.
The journey of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ruling Conservatives, in this regard, has been revealing. Not so long ago, Harper and his party were proudly, and loudly, pro-life. That was their position.
Once they achieved a Parliamentary majority, they abruptly changed course: while the Tories (per Clinton) didn’t like abortion, they weren’t going to “reopen” the most divisive social issue of modern times. Over and over, that is what Harper and his people have said: abortion won’t be on the agenda while he is in charge.
Harper hasn’t wavered, in that regard. He has crushed any and all attempts to revisit the abortion debate – most of which have emerged from his own backbench. He has been true to his word.
Which brings us, in a circuitous fashion, to Justin Trudeau. On Wednesday, the Liberal leader pronounced on abortion. In a scrum on the Hill, he mainly said what Clinton – and Harper, and Jean Chretien, and Paul Martin, and even his father, Pierre Trudeau – had previously said.
“Our position as a party is we do not reopen that debate,” Trudeau said, sounding a bit like Harper.
But then, he went a bit further. “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. And that is the bottom line.”
Not quite. There was another bottom line to come, and it immediately became news.
Said Trudeau: “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.”
And, with that, Trudeau did two things. One, he disposed of any lingering hope that he still favours so-called “open nominations.” In his Liberal Party, if you want to be a candidate, you must vote pro-choice. Or you’re out.
Two, by seeking to close the abortion issue, he has effectively re-opened it. Chretien, Martin and Trudeau’s father all knew that Catholics have historically tended to be Liberals. By moving well past the Clinton line – by making one’s position on abortion an actual condition of membership in the Liberal caucus – Trudeau risks dividing his party, and losing votes.
Personally, I always thought Justin Trudeau’s open nominations promise was rash – ironically enough, because it would make the party vulnerable to pro-life riding takeovers, as happened in 1990. But Trudeau made the promise, all on his own, and he needed to stick by it. He didn’t.
Personally, too, I favour the Clinton line, as do many other Liberal Catholics. Liberals have always made room for pro-life folks, and thereby not allowed the issue to tear us apart. It was smart politics, among other things.
So, what, then, is Justin Trudeau’s vision for the Liberal Party? What is his plan? I honestly don’t know.
And, on days like these, I don’t think he does, either.