Abortion Rights and the Alberta Election

30 Apr

A guest post from  Jane Cawthorne.

My home province of Alberta, Canada just had an election in which the right wing party that has held power for 41 years (yes, you read that correctly) was challenged by an even further right party who were widely expected to win. The far right were stopped in no small part by controversy they created over abortion and other social and human rights issues.

The new Wildrose party ran on a message of change. Change was something Albertans wanted. After more than four decades in power, the reigning Progressive Conservative party had more than enough baggage weighing it down. The Wildrose were ahead in the polls even on election day.

So what happened? The power of bloggers, independent media and social media cannot be underestimated in this election. I am happy to be one of the bloggers who played a part in revealing the agenda of this party. As I always do, I asked each of the parties to answer a few abortion related questions, all of which were clearly pro-choice. Usually in Canada, no one says anything surprising, so abortion doesn’t become an issue. Tampering with abortion rights is widely understood to be political suicide in Canada. In fact, even I was a little bored with the questions I was asking. But what happened next shows we can never become complacent.

The Wildrose party replied that they would put “social issues like abortion” to citizen initiated referendum. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. I put it out there and my sleepy little blog was suddenly getting hundreds of hits. Then the mainstream media started calling. The Wildrose couldn’t dodge the issue, in spite of the fact the holiday Easter weekend intervened. By Monday, it was still in the news cycle and the leader of the party had to repeatedly promise she would not bring abortion to referendum. What she did not promise was that she would not bring abortion funding to referendum. Then her past statements that she did not believe abortion should be publicly funded came to light, and the issue stuck to her like dog doo on a shoe. She couldn’t shake the stink of it.

At the same time, another blogger dug up some disturbing dirt on several of the Wildrose candidates, and yet another blogger who had been a Wildrose party supporter in the past got upset about their promise to implement conscience rights. Conscience rights would allow doctors to refuse to refer women for abortions, allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control or emergency contraception and allow public marriage commissioners to refuse to marry homosexual couples. In Canada, we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and these conscience rights would override Charter protections.  Questions were asked about where the line would be drawn and if human rights could be protected at all with such a policy. Gay rights and reproductive rights were front and centre.

The Wildrose party also promised to disband the Alberta Human Rights Commission. No one seemed to care about this until these other issues made it to the centre of the stage. Just when Albertans were starting to wonder about the social agenda of the Wildrose party, things got even more interesting.

One of their candidates said that homosexuals would burn in the “lake of fire.” Seriously. Another of their candidates said he had the best chance to win in his diverse riding because he was white. I’m not kidding. Then the leader herself came out as a climate change denier. The bloom was off the Wildrose, and the party was starting to be referred to as “Tea Party North.”

Yet, while all this was going on, polling still had the party in the lead and projected they would win. To the mainstream media, the biggest misstep in the Wildrose campaign had been some poor placement of graphics on the campaign bus. They hadn’t caught up with what everyone else knew; Wildrose did not represent the values of most Albertans.

What are the lessons? First, we can never be complacent about our rights. Ask the questions. Every time. Every candidate. Every election, from dog catcher to President and Prime Minister. All it takes is a group of single issue misogynists to get into power at any level and we’ve got trouble. Second, although they are getting pretty good at it, the powers that be can’t always control the narrative. We have the internet and we know how to use it. This election narrative changed. Any narrative can change. Third, we progressives have more allies and more power than we sometimes recognize, even in Alberta.

3 Responses to “Abortion Rights and the Alberta Election”

  1. Rachel May 4, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Thank you, Jane. As a fellow Canadian, I know that access to abortion seems like a guarantee that we don’t need to fuss over anymore– thanks to the hard work of people who have come before us, we have universal healthcare and abortion is considered just like any other medical procedure. Thanks for the important reminder that one victory doesn’t mean that all future battles are won (or won’t happen). I really appreciate that you took the time and effort to take up this issue when it seems that we can rest on our laurels.

  2. Iba May 4, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    I’m interested to hear that your doctors don’t have conscience rights. In the UK they do, and it’s never bothered me – I just assumed that if my doctor objects, sie would just calmly let me know, and I’d see another GP (which I can do easily) to be referred for an abortion.

    If I were a medical person, I’d want the right to object to performing circumcision for non-medical reasons. Insofar as I thought about it at all, I thought that all these conscience rights kind of went together, and challenging soem would mean challenging all.

    Sorry if my thoughts are unclear – I’ve not thought about this interesting issue enough!

  3. Rachel May 11, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Hi Iba,

    Abortion providers in Canada must undertake special training in order to perform the procedure, and very few GPs will do it as a part of their regular family practice. There is no need for a conscience clause because physicians can just opt not to perform the procedure as part of their regular repertoire. Training for abortion provision is an opt-in, not an opt-out, segment of medical training in most Canadian medical schools.

    I mention this simply to state that there are already numerous avenues for physicians to refuse to perform abortion without providing a conscience clause. An independent conscience clause suggests that a patient’s right to choose (or refuse) a medical procedure rests on the physician’s moral convictions. This is simply unacceptable to me. Whether it’s refusing a request for an abortion/circumcision/blood transfusion/organ transplant due to morally ‘suspect’ lifestyle, it simply does not sit well with me that a doctor’s personal worldview can determine their patients’ access to care.

    Both conscience clauses and practitioner opt-out, however, often result in the same thing: barriers to accessing reproductive choice options. That’s the second reason why I do not support conscience clauses. We already have too many barriers to access, as not all of us can just see another physician, or be referred to one (this is a privilege that I share with you Iba, as I live in an urban area with a relatively high concentration of healthcare services). The question may also come down to a question of power. If technically I have a right to individual autonomy in matters of reproductive choice, is it justifiable that someone who is in a position of authority or power (ie, a pharmacist/physician/magistrate/etc) should deny me that access?

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