Dr. Dawg

Abortion to be recriminalized

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Time to wake up and smell the coffee, folks. The countdown towards recriminalization of abortion has already begun.

Because the Harper government borrows its moves from US far-right playbooks—voter suppression, assorted other dirty tricks, strategic vocabulary—it’s worthwhile briefly checking out how the latter mainstream their fringe positions.

Two words: “salami tactics.”

The phrase made infamous by a Hungarian Communist leader means eliminating opposition slice by slice. For example, say the world is not ready to accept that humans once walked with dinosaurs, having been cast out of Paradise approximately 6,000 years ago.

How do you create enough doubt about evolutionary theory that you can inject your position into school textbooks? “Intelligent Design.” You don’t exactly say that a Creator made himself a complicated toy with pets a few millennia back: instead, you assert that marvellously complex features of life as we know it couldn’t have just happened.

But here’s the trick. You have to actually deny that ID has anything to do with Creationism. The latter is considered so cranky that no responsible person will touch it with a bargepole. It’s an impossible uphill climb just to get folks to listen. So repackage it as something else.

Enough people who reject the notion of dinosaurs and people getting along only a few thousand years back will be taken in by the ID “scientific” approach. Get that mainstreamed and then we can move on to just who the Designer is.

By the same token, most folks support a woman’s right to choose. Taking an ultra-hard line on zygotic personhood leads to sure defeat, even where the “pro-life” view is particularly strong.

So bring in measures that ostensibly have nothing to do with abortion. Indeed, deny that abortion is even relevant to laws that punish assault against pregnant women leading to the death of the fetus, for example.

36 states have such “fetal protection” laws on the books now. Getting a little nervous, Roe v. Wade? You should be.

Another slice. Who could object to giving pregnant women a little more protection? And, after all, the legislators behind this stuff have sworn on a stack of bibles that abortion never entered their minds. The fact that they’re all “pro-life” is just a coincidence.

So let’s head back to Canada. The opening shots were partly trial balloons, partly reassuring political ploys.

The first salvo was Conservative Ken Epp’s “Unborn Victims of Crime” bill, introduced in 2008. Of course, “pro-lifer” Epp wanted to “inoculate this legislation against the abortion question.” That’s precisely how salami tactics work. Keep the soft pro-choicers onside, but sneak in the notion of fetal protection with their assent, dividing them from the “radical” pro-choice people who see such legislation for what it is.

An election loomed: the Conservative government scuttled the Bill. That put them on the side of the majority, always a good place for a minority government to be. But they had tested the waters.

Then in April 2010, staunch “pro-life” Conservative MP Rod Bruinooge introduced Bill C-510, supposedly to protect pregnant women from being coerced into abortion. Good grief, even pro-choice folks would support a notion like that: we don’t favour coercion either way. But, of course, such a law inserts the notion of fetal personhood into the Criminal Code.

Just putting a toe in the water once again, with a bill based upon an outright lie. In his minority position, and with another election not far down the pike, Stephen Harper wanted once again to reassure the electorate, and said: “I think I’ve been very clear as party leader….As long as I’m prime minister we are not reopening the abortion debate.”

But by that time he had already reopened it, as veteran pro-choice activist Carolyn Egan pointed out at the time:

“We now have some concrete things to point to,” said Ms. Egan, detailing the Harper government’s controversial decision last year not to fund any groups that offered access to abortion in their global maternal health package, and a severely restricted access to abortion in New Brunswick that pro-choice advocates say violates the Canada Health Act - women have to pay out of pocket for abortions if they go to a private clinic. Then there is a succession of anti-abortion private member’s bills, one of which, Bill C-510, enjoyed support from 87 members of the Tory caucus and several cabinet ministers, even though Harper had asked his cabinet to vote against it.

Harper was playing the good cop, his backbencher Brad Trost the bad one, on the issue of funding Planned Parenthood. Trost claimed the organization was to be de-funded. (Funding was eventually granted, after a delay of a year and a half, but only for activities in countries where abortion is illegal.)

Harper won his majority. And, voilà, yet another backbencher has front-burnered the debate that would not be re-opened.

Stephen Woodworth, the MP for Kitchener-Centre, says there is no reason that Canadians can’t have a rational conversation about the matter. “I am just hoping to launch a discussion and let people know what the situation is,” he said in telephone interview.

In a news release issued Wednesday that does not mention abortion directly, Mr. Woodworth points out that the Canadian statute that defines a human being as someone who is completely separate from the mother’s body has its roots in British legal treatises written in the 17th century.

The important question, he said, is whether a 400-year-old law is supported by 21st-century medical science and principles of human rights.

“Whatever view one has on abortion, it would be important to know whether a child is a human being,” he told The Globe and Mail. “And I think it is really ridiculous, in a way, that we have a 400-year-old definition of a human being that has important human-rights implications.” [emphasis added]

Now, it’s important to get one thing straight. There is no such thing as an independent backbencher in Harper’s caucus. Garth Turner tried it on once, and was duly defenestrated. Let’s avoid the “trained seals” cliché: seals are far more difficult to train than Conservative backbenchers, whose very political survival depends upon pleasing the boss, who personally approves their nominations—or not.

So it’s not merely coincidence that various and sundry backbenchers have been sending this stuff forward. There’s apparent (mild) defiance of the Leader, but not actual defiance, which would cost them dearly. This is almost certainly orchestrated. There’s a chess game going on, and the pace of the moves is picking up.

Backbenchers have cheerfully played out their byzantine roles in the past. When the government was in a minority, Conservative nonentity Candace Hoeppner, not the government, introduced the first (unsuccessful) bill on shutting down the gun registry. Once a majority was achieved, she was given the responsibility of shepherding the now-official-government bill through to the end.

Indeed, backbench “initiatives” tend to adumbrate Harper’s not-so-hidden agenda. Russ Hiebert’s proposed bill to demand that unions make their finances public, which they already are, is a good example. Put that together with frequent front-bench talk of “union bosses,” unprecedented back-to-work legislation and baseless accusations of sabotage, and we get a pretty good idea of where the government is heading. Getting a little skittish, Rand formula? You should be.

Never mind the Charter, by the way, which many of us secretly hope will curb the government’s wilder impulses. Does anyone know where Harper’s recent Supreme Court picks stand on choice? On unions? No? Well, be assured that he does.

In any case, Woodworth, Harper’s latest point man on the abortion issue, hasn’t yet introduced a bill. He just wants the discussion, OK? And anyway he’s not really talking about abortion at all, just clarification of an “obsolete” law. (Just a bit of déjà vu here: US right-to-lifers pulled off a ban on “partial-birth abortions,” another clean hit on Roe v. Wade. Woodworth may have something similar in the back of his mind.*)

And right on time, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced a subtle modulation of Harper’s theme, caught by an alert observer:

“We have always been clear, our Government has no intention to reopen this debate.”

Do these people always keep their fingers crossed behind their backs? Watch for an unpleasant Spring surprise.

* “[I]n Canada a child is legally considered to be sub-human while his or her little toe remains in the birth canal, even if he or she is breathing.”

[Big h/t to deBeauxOs of DAMMIT JANET! for shaking me out of my complacency]

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on December 23, 2011 12:11 PM.

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