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March 27, 2018 (National Post) – If you want to know how the Liberals managed to turn a 20-point lead in the polls into a five-point deficit in little more than a year, a good place to start is their apparently sincere belief that they could blackmail the country's churches into dropping their opposition to abortion.

The unseriousness that is the distinguishing feature of this government takes many forms – the prime minister's foppish persona and shallow philosophizing; his habit of announcing sweeping policy changes, without having first thought how to implement them; the casual jettisoning of some of these, where the consequences proved politically bothersome – but among them is a fanatical seriousness on certain issues, a dogmatic insistence on its position, as intense and unyielding as its commitment to others has proved cynical and transitory.

I think this is a better explanation for the latest exploding cigar the Liberals have lit for themselves – the sudden demand that church groups and other organizations seeking to hire students under the Canada Summer Jobs program must first “attest” that their “core mandate” respects “reproductive rights” – than the alternative theory: that this was part of some fiendish plot to flush out the anti-abortionists in the opposition, polarize opinion, and rally women to the Liberal flag.

A similar fiendishness, you'll recall, was supposed to explain the small-business tax changes: position the Liberals as champions of tax fairness, paint the Tories as apologists for rich tax cheats, clean up politically. But whereas the party has been in more or less steady retreat from the latter fiasco, the worse the fight with the churches has got, the deeper the government has dug itself in. At some point one has to conclude they really mean it.

This is, after all, hardly the first time the Liberals, under their current leader, have attempted to demonize any and all opposition to abortion, no matter how mild, as outside the bounds of civilized debate. There was the ban on pro-lifers running as candidates for the Liberal party, or on Liberal MPs voting anything but the party line on abortion, notwithstanding the tradition that such matters of conscience should be left to free votes.

There was the walkout in protest at the Conservatives' nomination of reputed pro-lifer Rachael Harder for chair of the Status of Women committee, as if her views on the question automatically disqualified her from representing the interests and concerns of Canadian women.

And now this. No big deal, you understand: you can continue to hold whatever beliefs you like about abortion, the government told faith groups. You just have to sign a document pretending you don't.

Tell Justin Trudeau to stop banning funding to pro-life groups.Sign the petition here!

So you can believe abortion should be outlawed, but if you want to receive government funds, you must affirm it is a right. Or, as the government later “clarified,” that whatever “activities” you conduct will respect that right. Not surprisingly, the churches have been no more receptive to this updated opportunity to exchange their consciences for cash than they were the first.

And not only the churches. Amazingly, the primary effect of the government's ham-handed attempt to banish abortion opponents to the margin of Canadian society has been to give them the most sympathetic hearing they have have had in years, even from a media that leans overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights.

They have had the chance to make the point that, in fact, there is no constitutional right to an abortion, whether in the text of the Charter or in the jurisprudence arising from it. The 1988 Morgentaler ruling, in particular, was concerned only with the law that was on the books at the time, not whether any abortion law would be constitutional. Indeed, several of the justices, notably Bertha Wilson, offered suggestions as to what sort of law would pass constitutional muster.

So, too, we have been reminded that the absence of an abortion law owes not to any decision by the House of Commons, but to a tie vote of the Senate, by which means Kim Campbell's abortion bill, though passed by the Commons, was allowed to die; that the resulting legal vacuum, far from the norm, makes Canada the outlier among democratic states; and that, notwithstanding the passage of 30 years, public opinion remains sharply divided on the question, with upwards of 60 per cent typically supporting limits of some kind.

More to the point, the controversy has moved many of those who support the status quo to concede that people have a right to dissent from it. Even if abortion were defined in law as a right, the oddity of upholding that right by trampling others' rights – to conscience, to speech – has been widely observed: it is not against the law to oppose a law. Indeed, the attestation requirement is almost certainly unconstitutional.

And yet, when a motion denouncing the policy came to a vote last week in the House of Commons, not only did virtually every Liberal and every New Democrat vote against it, but NDP member David Christopherson, the lone dissenter in his party, was stripped of a committee post as punishment. Not only is it impermissible to oppose abortion, it seems, but even to suggest that others should be allowed to do so.

Such is the absurd competition in which the two parties are engaged, each seeking to stake out the most extreme position on the question, each denouncing everyone else – other countries, two-thirds of the population, Bertha Wilson – as the extremists.

Published with permission from the National Post.


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