TORONTO, November 22, 2013 ( – Recently declassified federal cabinet documents reveal why Canada’s pro-life movement vehemently opposed the Mulroney government’s 1989 Bill C-43 that proposed to re-criminalize abortion but would have, according to pro-lifers at the time, legally approved abortion on-demand.


“Bill C-43 was designed to help the aborting doctors and would not save unborn children,” said Jim Hughes, national president of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC),  in a press release. “If it had passed as presented by Brian Mulroney’s government, abortion would have been legalized in Canada.”

To this day, Canada still has no law governing abortion. There is no so-called “right” to abortion, as abortion advocates claim, but simply a vacuum.

The Context

In 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the few remaining protections still afforded to unborn babies by the 1969 Liberal government’s “Omnibus Bill”. While keeping abortion as a criminal offense under Section 251 of the Criminal Code, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 bill allowed a “therapeutic abortion committee” consisting of three doctors to approve the deadly procedure if “the continuation of pregnancy … would be likely to endanger the life or health of the mother.”

Since the word “health” was not defined, in practice this resulted in abortion-on-demand. In the first year alone of the new law 11,152 children were killed through abortion. The numbers rapidly grew each year after that.

Section 251 of the Code was eventually struck down on procedural grounds in the 1988 Morgentaler Decision. The Supreme Court ruled that since the 1969 law was not applied equally across the country — which it said violated the Charter right to security of the person — it was unconstitutional. This left Canada without an abortion law, placing it alongside communist China.

Legally this meant that at the request of the mother, a child in the womb could be killed by a doctor during all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason whatsoever. At the same time, however, the court encouraged Parliament to draft a new law if they chose to do so.

Replacement abortion law

In 1989 pro-abortion Conservative justice minister Kim Campbell, with the input of the government’s minister of health, Jake Epp, introduced Bill C-43 as the replacement abortion law.

Cabinet meeting minutes obtained by The Canadian Press show then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney consistently rejected input from cabinet heavyweights that would have offered at least some meaningful protections for unborn children in their mothers’ wombs.

Rejected proposals included: criminal penalties for women who deliberately killed their unborn children through self-abortion; a draft resolution that would have criminalized aborting malformed unborn children; and an amendment to stipulate that stress caused by an unwanted pregnancy should not be considered a health danger to the woman.

Declassified minutes reveal that Epp, a practicing Mennonite Christian, argued strongly against setting “arbitrary” dividing lines between stages of pregnancy.

Epp rejected the recommendations of a special ad hoc cabinet committee on abortion that recommended a two-stage law that would allow abortion up to around 28 weeks gestation, and only afterwards if the mother’s life was in danger. Epp’s one-stage approach to pregnancy ultimately made its way into Bill C-43.

Bill C-43 would add abortion back to the criminal code, making inducing abortion an indictable offense punishable by up to two years in prison, unless it was done “by or under the direction of a medical practitioner who is of the opinion that, if the abortion were not induced, the health or life of the female person would likely be threatened.” “Health” was broadly defined to include a woman’s “physical, mental and psychological health.”

Pro-life leaders fight proposed law

Canada’s leading pro-life organizations, including Campaign Life Coalition, Alliance for Life Canada, and REAL Women, fought the bill, saying that it had enough exceptions and loopholes as to render it useless in protecting any unborn child from abortion.

Their concerns were not without just cause. Campbell reassured abortion doctors in an October 1990 10-page letter that they have “no need to fear” the proposed legislation since it had been specifically worded to prevent no abortions, while protecting doctors who committed them.

“The legislation is designed to protect a doctor from being convicted under the new law…[and] protect nurses and other medical staff acting under the doctor’s direction,” wrote Campbell. She made it clear that abortion doctors were explicitly protected under the proposed law since it legally recognized abortion as a “lawful medical procedure”.

Campbell praised the proposed law for its generous criteria under which doctors could perform abortions. “[Doctors may] take into consideration any matters which, in their opinion, are likely to adversely affect…the woman’s…health. These factors could include rape, incest, genetic defects and socio-economic factors. […] For example, social factors and personal aspirations could be considered in relation to a determination of health.”

That the bill would do nothing to protect the unborn or curtail abortion was not lost on mainstream media. A November 1989 Montreal Gazette editorial stated: “the government has wholly ducked the rights of the fetus. The law does not even refer to fetal rights.” At the same time, another editorial in The Globe and Mail claimed: “access to abortion will be easier and quicker under this Bill.”

Pro-life Canadians were thus put in the dilemma of accepting what they saw as a duplicitous abortion on-demand bill, or no legislation at all.

Many realized that no matter what happened, Canada’s unborn children would have no victory.

“I recall that there was a huge amount of consultation among various pro-life groups and pro-life politicians,” said LifeSiteNews managing director Steve Jalsevac, a Campaign Life activist at the time. “It went on for a long time and no one person dominated the discussions. Every view was taken into consideration and in the end the strategy of opposing the bill, even though the pro-aborts were at the same time also strongly opposing the bill, was firmly agreed upon by the large majority of Canada's pro-life leaders and groups.”

Jalsevac said that any other decision would have been a “pragmatic compromise of essential principles that cannot be compromised.”

“What none of us expected, however, was how powerful the influence of some forces in Canada have been to this day, committed to never letting another law come forward on abortion,” he said. “Who could have anticipated that such a bizarre offense against democracy, reason and just plain common sense would have prevailed for so very long.”

Marilyn Bergeron, former president of Alliance for Life Canada and 2013 recipient of the LifeCanada Mother Teresa pro-life award, told LifeSiteNews that “after many many hours of discussion and much prayer, we took a stand against Bill C-43 because it would have enshrined into law the right to abortion.”

“We felt it was wrong to do that because the law is a great teacher. Essentially it would teach that there was a right to abortion under certain circumstances,” she explained.

Bergeron said that the bill created a wedge between mother and baby that kept on “being expanded to take the lives of more babies for different reasons.”

Instead of a law that offered no real protection to the unborn, Bergeron said pro-lifers “wanted to work towards a law that would protect all unborn children.”

Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, told LifeSiteNews that while the bill would have put the word “abortion” in the criminal code, it was “in fact abortion on-demand without restraints.”

“Abortion would be determined by a doctor and his ‘opinion’, and who would dispute his opinion? The bill would not have stopped abortions,” she said.

Landolt related how the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops took the position that adding abortion to the code would have at least provided some ground upon which to wage a legal war against it.

Bishop Robert Lebel, then-president of the CCCB, stated at the time that although the bill was “seriously flawed” it would have been better than a “legislative vacuum” since it would have confirmed that abortion is a matter of public morality and a criminal offense.

But many pro-life leaders took the position that the unborn would be served better by scrapping the bill and working towards a better law.

“It was a matter of political tactics,” said Landolt. “Who was right, who was wrong, I don’t know. But at the time pro-life leaders were crystal clear: we were not going to condone abortion on-demand.”

Hughes told LifeSiteNews that the proposed bill was in no way a compromise with pro-lifers by the government, but a “sellout” to the abortion industry. CLC took the position that a “bad law is worse than no law,” and decided to direct its efforts in campaigning for a new law that would not compromise on protecting the unborn. Through the intervention of the late Senator Dr. Stanley Haidasz, CLC made a delegation before the Senate to argue against the bill.

The bill was adopted by the House of Commons in May 1990 by a free vote of 140 to 131, but was ultimately defeated in the Senate in a tie vote of 43-43 in January 1991.

Of particular note, Rob Nicholson, who was then Campbell’s parliamentary secretary, voted against Bill C-43 on pro-life grounds. I could not in good conscience give approval to something that I have always fought against in my life,” he said at the time. “I have fought for the protection of unborn children and I fought against the abortion law that was in place in Canada for many years.”

Since rejoining Parliament in 2004, in particular in his role as Justice Minister from 2007 to 2013, he has opposed all new legislative attempts to enact protections for the unborn.

Pro-life Victory

Pro-life leaders from around the country saw the bill’s defeat as a victory for the pro-life cause. Their reactions were reported by The Interim at the time.

Fr. Alphonse de Valk, founding editor of Catholic Insight magazine, called the bill’s defeat a victory for truth over the lie that the bill “struck a balance” between the mother and child.

Cecelia Forsyth, then-president of Saskatoon Pro-Life, stated about the bill’s defeat: “There’s a sense of relief…It’s much more difficult to change a bad law than to introduce a good law. We’re working for a good law.”

Michel Arsenault of Life Savers in Moncton, New Brunswick, called the defeat “rather nice.” “Now we can work towards a law that really will protect both mother and unborn child,” she said.

Dr. Andre LaFrance stated that the proposed law “would have done absolutely nothing to prevent even a single abortion.”

Anneliese Steden, a spokeswoman for Cambridge Right to Life, said that her organization was “hoping” Bill C-43 would be defeated because it was “paraded as a pro-life bill when it wasn’t. In our opinion we would be better off without a law and try to get a better law in the future.”

Rev. Ken Campbell, president of Choose Life Canada, stated: “We oppose the bill because it sought to institutionalize the killing of the innocent pre-born. It’s better to have no bill at all.”

To this day, Campaign Life Coalition, which describes itself as the political arm of Canada’s pro-life movement, will only support legislative initiatives for the unborn that adhere to the principle that the “life of every unborn child has the natural and fundamental right to protection in law.” The organization strongly supports incremental measures that uphold that principle, but does not support legislation that “arbitrarily divides humans into protected and unprotected classes.”

CLC continues to stand by what it stated in its delegation to the Senate against Bill C-43 more than two decades ago: “Life is a continuum. It is not measured in weeks, inches or pounds. A human being exists and is alive from the moment of conception [fertilization].”

“Abortion, at any time after conception, kills a developing human being.”

Since the defeat of Bill C-43 in the Senate, no government has touched the legal status of abortion, including the reigning Conservative Party under Stephen Harper, who has stated on numerous occasions that he will not allow the abortion issue to be reopened.

Canada’s unborn children, killed by the millions since 1969, still await some form of legal protection as suggested by the Supreme Court when it struck down Section 251 in 1988.


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