IN THE NEWS ~ Harper's Tory MPs divided over abortion

Harper's Tory MPs divided over abortion

Mark Kennedy and Natalie Stechyson, Vancouver Sun

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative MPs have been left
seriously divided over the issue of abortion after a controversial motion was
defeated in the House of Commons Wednesday.

By a vote of 203 to 91, MPs defeated the motion by Conservative MP
Stephen Woodworth instructing parliamentarians to study whether a fetus is a
human being before the moment of birth.

But in a surprise, the vote revealed the deep split among Tory MPs over
the issue. Eighty-seven of the 163 Tory MPs supported the motion.

And although Prime Minister Stephen Harper had made it clear he opposed
the motion even as critics accused him of having a hidden agenda to
re-criminalize abortion, many of his cabinet ministers did not take his cue by
voting with him.

Eight ministers and two ministers of state voted in favour of
Woodworth's motion. They included: Immigration Minister Jason Kenney;
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan; Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose;
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz; International Trade Minister Ed Fast; Revenue
Minister Gail Shea; Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue; and
International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino.

Harper was in the Commons on Wednesday and voted against the motion.

It came amid a political uproar over whether the motion by Woodworth was
part of a plan Harper's government to reopen a national debate on abortion. The
government denied that charge as a ridiculous assertion and said that MPs were
merely being given their right to put forward their own motions and to vote on
them.

A clear majority of B.C. Conservative MPs, including two ministers,
voted in favour of the motion.

Fast and Alice Wong, minister of state for seniors, voted for the
motion. Heritage Minister James Moore and Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan
voted against it.

In total 13 of 21 B.C. Tory MPs supported Ontario MP Stephen Woodworth's
motion to establish a committee to study when life begins.

All nine B.C. New Democrats voted against the motion, as did Liberals
Hedy Fry and Joyce Murray. New Democrats Peter Julian and Fin Donnelly, who
opposed Motion 312, missed the vote because they were flying to B.C. to attend
a meeting Thursday on the re-drawing of electoral boundaries.

The other B.C. Tories taking an anti-abortion stand were Ron Cannan,
Nina Grewal, Dick Harris, Russ Hiebert, Randy Kamp, James Lunney, Colin Mayes,
Mark Strahl, Mark Warawa, John Weston, and Bob Zimmer.

B.C. Tory backbenchers who opposed the motion were Dan Albas,
Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Cathy McLeod, Andrew Saxton, David Wilks and Wai Young.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair said that Harper has been giving contradictory
"signals" - publicly promising Canadian voters in the last election
that an abortion law would not be part of the government agenda, while
privately telling his own MPs in caucus that they can pursue that agenda on
their own.

"Mr. Harper can't have it both ways," said Mulcair. "It's
a fundamental question of womens' rights."

Most MPs in the 35-member Liberal caucus voted against the motion. Four
were in support of it.

On the NDP benches, all the MPs who voted were opposed to the motion.

Ever since Woodworth introduced the motion last spring, it was deemed
highly unlikely that MPs would approve it.

But it created sharp debate in the Commons and prompted various Tory MPs
to regularly come forward with petitions of support from their own
constituents.

There has not been an abortion law in Canada since the 1980s, and
efforts by the Mulroney government in the early 1990s to legislate a new law
ended in failure.

Woodworth, an Ontario lawyer, denied that his motion was about
criminalizing abortion. Instead, he took issue with how the Criminal Code
defines that someone becomes a human being when they are born. Woodworth said
that law is outdated and his motion proposed a special parliamentary committee
to study whether a human being exists before birth.

"I think a child is a human being before the moment of complete
birth," he said Wednesday. "The question before us is: Do we want a
Canada where anyone who is a human being will be denied their inherent worth
and dignity?"

Woodworth pointed to historical instances where peoples' equality was
stripped because they were not deemed human beings: African-Americans in the
19th century, women in the early 20th century, and mentally-challenged
individuals in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

He said the defeat of his motion will not stop him from continuing to
work on the cause.

"As long as I draw a breath I hope I will always advocate for the
fact that every human being is equal and that every human being has an inherent
worth and dignity. And that government cannot be allowed, with a false
definition of a human being, to take away that worth and dignity."

In the Commons, New Democrat MP Niki Ashton blasted Harper for allowing
Tory MPs to "reopen the abortion debate" despite his own promises.

"New Democrats are the only party united that will stand up to vote
for women's equality because this is not a matter of conscience. It is a matter
of rights."

Gordon O'Connor, the chief government whip, spoke against the motion
during one of the parliamentary debates, arguing that opening up the abortion
debate "will lead to increased conflict as an attempt is made to turn back
the clock."

On Wednesday, he told reporters that Harper was not breaking his
promise.

"The concept is the government will not initiate legislation
relating to abortion, will not support legislation relating to abortion. This
is a private members motion."

Moreover, he said there's nothing wrong with letting MPs vote however
they want on private motions that don't come from the government itself.

"This is a democracy," he said. "There's no hidden
agenda."

However, the long-term political consequences of the vote could endure,
said experts.

The issue gives the opposition parties fodder for their own base and
could reinforce the left-right split, said Christopher Cochrane, an assistant
professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

One of the long-standing accusations that the NDP and Liberals have
levelled at the Conservatives is that they've had a hidden social agenda,
Cochrane said.

"The fact that this motion was introduced by a Conservative member
and the fact that it's also received some support does provide a sort of
reinforcement of a suspicion I think that a lot of people on the left harbour -
that the Conservatives are actually looking to reopen an issue that had been
seemingly settled or at least not on the radar for quite some time,"
Cochrane said.

With files from Peter O'Neil, Vancouver Sun

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