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Abortion politics flare up at the Ontario Legislature

Yesterday I was interviewed by the CBC for my thoughts on the latest instance of abortion politics at the Ontario Legislature. On October 4, the Liberal government introduced Bill 163, the Protecting a Woman’s Right to Abortion Services Act, which would ban protests within a radius of 50 m around facilities that provide abortion services and the homes of their staff. The protest “bubble zone” could be expanded up to 150 m in some cases. The bill was brought forward after several media reports emerged last spring that protesters at abortion clinics were becoming increasingly aggressive.

The day after Bill 163 was introduced, the Progressive Conservative (PC) party moved a motion to immediately pass it through all legislative stages. However, the motion required the unanimous consent of all MPPs, which the government denied. The government’s rationale was that MPPs should hear from stakeholders before agreeing to the law. The opposition argued that the government was only raising the abortion issue at divisive political tactic.

CBC reporter Mike Crawley asked me what I thought was really going on. Why would the government seek to slow the passage of its own bill? The government has a point that stakeholders may want the chance to share their views on the bill. For instance, some would like the larger 150 m bubble zone to be adopted by default, not only with special permission. However, the government already spent much of the summer consulting with stakeholders. As such it is doubtful that legislative hearings would turn up much in the way of new views. Indeed, the only new opinions would likely be from those like to stop the bill from passing at all.

Instead, it seems much more likely that the Liberal government is seeking to prolong debate on the bill in hopes of expose and exploit the divisions within the PC Party between social conservatives and more socially liberal members. During his campaign for the PC leadership in 2015, Patrick Brown campaigned on reversing changes to Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum. He also received support from anti-abortion activists based on his voting record as a federal MP. However, once the race had finished, he changed his views, promising to avoid the issue of abortion and to leave the Liberal sex-ed curriculum in place. This reversal has left many grassroots PC members – and also some of their socially conservative MPPs – in conflict with Brown’s leadership.

Brown has so far avoided major public conflicts by vetoing debate on social conservative issues at the PC policy convention, and by having socially conservative MPPs absenting themselves on potentially divisive bills, such as the “All Families Are Equal Act.” By forcing an extended consideration of Bill 163, the Liberals provide opportunity for socially conservative organizations to mobilize and pressure PC MPPs to oppose the Bill, creating the potential for an open rebellion against Brown’s leadership, and opportunities for the Liberals to paint the PCs as harbouring a socially conservative agenda

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