Playing politics with reproductive rights

OPINION: The Liberals want to protect women seeking abortions. They also want to torment the PCs, says John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on October 11, 2017
two people holding up protest signs
A new bill would create safe access zones around clinics that provide abortion services. (ftwitty/iStock)

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The good news, such as it is, is that women in Ontario might not actually be worse off — despite the games the government is playing with their reproductive rights. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Last Wednesday, the Liberals announced that they were introducing a bill to create safe access zones around clinics that provide abortion services. The so-called bubbles zones will ensure that women seeking to end pregnancies won’t have to face harassment or assault by protesters. Such incidents are a real and ongoing concern across the province; after one Ottawa clinic blamed authorities for their lack of action, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi promised new legislation earlier this year.

So: a clear problem, a clear solution. The bill’s central elements will likely survive the inevitable court challenge, and it even has all-party support. PC leader Patrick Brown released a video shortly before Naqvi’s announcement in which he signals his support for a woman’s right to choose and laments what he calls the government’s attempt to “debate divisive social issues.”

That’s when Liberals started rubbing their hands together: asked about Brown’s remarks, Naqvi said, “It might be a divisive issue in the [Progressive] Conservative caucus, but ask any of these advocates … women are being harassed, are being threatened, are being intimidated just for exercising their right to get health care services.”

Naqvi’s sudden passion for the issue raises some obvious questions, and the fact that he’s using it to dunk on the Tories gives us the right to ask them. For starters: harassment has been reported at Ottawa’s Morgentaler Clinic for years, but the government did nothing until now. Did they not know? Did they not care? Why do they suddenly care so intensely about abortion access, coincidentally months before an election? This is the second time the Liberals have raised the abortion issue in under a year: reasonable observers have the right to some skepticism.

On Thursday, the Tories called the Liberal bluff: If this issue is so urgent and has all-party support, then surely the government would push to pass the bill in a single day through unanimous consent, instead of putting it through the usual weeks-long process of debate, committee hearing, and more debate before a final vote and Royal Assent?

As it turns out, no, the Liberals do not want to pass their bill as speedily as possible. The Attorney General’s office says that stakeholders from abortion providers to local law enforcement have the right to share their input through the usual legislative process.

Fair enough — unanimous consent is a procedural shortcut that shouldn’t be overused. But Naqvi just finished saying that women and their health care providers are in direct physical danger here, now, today — just finished stressing how terrible it is that not everyone understands the urgency of the situation. So which is it? Is the situation critical, or do we have the luxury of time?

The government wants this bill to become law, but there’s something it seems to want even more: the opportunity to make the Tories debate the issue at length. Best-case scenario for the Liberals is that a PC MPP says something deeply unfortunate about “baby killers” during debate at the legislature — but, frankly, even if the party’s more conservative members simply stay home that day, the Liberals will be able to fundraise on that, too.


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The Attorney General’s office initially told TVO.org that the protections guaranteed in the legislation would come into force the day it’s signed by Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell — there would be no waiting period for the government to draw up subsequent rules or regulations. This admission scores a point for the Tories: if it weren’t for the Liberals, the bill could have been passed by the legislature on Thursday and signed by the LG the very same day, with immediate effect. (Dowdeswell was even tweeting from Toronto that day; she could have hurried back to Queen’s Park.) These allegedly urgent protections could already be in place.

When this reporter pointed out that the government’s position effectively conceded that Brown was on the right side of this argument, the AG staff revised their statement: even if the bill is passed and signed into law, they say, setting explicit boundaries for these new legally entrenched bubble zones will take time. The Attorney General’s office will have to work with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (these are, after all, health care providers) and the clinics themselves to set up a registry of clinics and their bubble zones.

Nearly every piece of serious legislation requires this kind of preparatory work. Some of it can start before the bill is passed, but it all needs to be done before every part of the law actually comes into effect. So, per the government’s revised statement, women in Ontario who are seeking to safely access an abortion clinic are no worse off because of the government’s insistence on the full, drawn-out legislative process.

It’s hard not to see this as a symbolic loss all the same: the Liberals were given an opportunity to make a unanimous statement in support of a woman’s right to choose — a statement that some things are quite literally not up for debate — and they whiffed it. There’s plenty of political cynicism on all sides: the Tories want to avoid a prolonged debate that’s going to be painful for some of their members, while the Liberals don’t believe a word from Brown’s mouth and want to discredit him before the next election.

Provincial politics isn’t softball: the Liberals have the privilege of choosing their battles, and they aren’t obligated to give the Tories an easy time of things. But they made a different choice in 2005, rushing through a bill to formally legalize same-sex marriage in Ontario, and doing so in a way that didn’t torment the PCs under then-leader John Tory. It’s not a perfect comparison: it was a different premier, the courts had already spoken on the issue and, oh yes, it wasn’t an election year. Thank goodness for that, at least.

Related: The countdown to Ontario election 2018

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