Canada is the only democratic country in the world without an abortion law

Daniel ZekveldAs Canadians recently marked the death of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, we also take an opportunity to remember his life. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while announcing details of Mulroney’s state funeral, noted that Mulroney “was a champion of the values that unite us as Canadians and will forever be remembered as a force for the common good.”

During his nine years as Canada’s Prime Minister, Mulroney sought the common good, even on divisive issues. In fact, Mulroney is the last Prime Minister in Canadian history to introduce a law on abortion.

After the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s existing abortion law in 1988, Mulroney’s government introduced Bill C-43, which would permit abortions only where the mother’s health was at risk. The bill passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 140 to 131. After the bill was debated in the Senate, Senators voted 43 to 43, causing the bill to fail on a tied vote when the Speaker of the Senate opted not to break the tie.

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At the time, Bill C-43 was considered a compromise bill, trying to strike a balance between those who advocated for a total ban on abortion and those who wanted looser restrictions. Then-Justice Minister Kim Campbell stated, “Abortion is one of the most divisive issues facing Canadians today. I am strongly of the opinion that Bill C-43 reflects a balance of the views of the Canadian people in a way that will be acceptable to the majority of Canadians.”

As a result of the Senate’s failure to pass the bill, Canada has been without an abortion law for over three decades now, a deviation from norms observed in other jurisdictions. In fact, Canada is the only democratic country in the world with no abortion law. For example, many Western European countries have a 12-week gestational limit for abortion, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and Switzerland.

Some Western nations also require a waiting period and counselling before a woman can have an abortion. For example, in Germany, abortion is available up to 12 weeks, with exceptions for sexual assault or if there is grave danger to the woman’s health. Before the abortion can occur, the mother is given counselling and must wait three days after the initial consultation before having an abortion.

Some might argue that Mulroney’s Canada differed from the one we know today. And that is true in many ways. But abortion continues to be a divisive issue, and the lack of any legislation does not align with the views of most Canadians. For example, while 86 percent of Canadians believe abortion should be legal in the first trimester, that number drops to 57 percent for the second trimester and only 30 percent in the third.

Attempts have been made through private members’ bills to introduce a law on abortion, specifically bills seeking to restrict sex-selective abortion, which disproportionately targets pre-born girls. Efforts have also been made to introduce a bill that would change sentencing requirements to acknowledge two crimes when a pregnant mother and her unborn child are killed. But these bills have failed to pass, as governments following Mulroney have largely chosen to avoid addressing the issue except for exploiting it as a political wedge during election campaigns.

Although perhaps forced into it by the Supreme Court decision, I commend Mulroney for diving into this divisive issue during his tenure and seeking to find what his government believed to be an appropriate balance, one that acknowledged to some extent the humanity and value of life in the womb.

Parliamentarians now consider this issue settled and prefer not to debate it. For example, in 2021, Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall for Yorkton-Melville in Saskatchewan introduced a bill to prohibit sex-selective abortion, a practice opposed by 84 percent of Canadians. However, the bill was defeated by a vote of 248-82. For many, the reluctance stemmed from a fear of “reopening the abortion debate” rather than directly addressing the specifics of the proposed bill.

The topic of an abortion law remains divisive, but the debate is not closed. Canadians and Parliamentarians may hold different persuasions, but that should not stifle healthy debate. As Canada lags behind other Western nations in safeguarding the human rights of the most vulnerable, it is imperative for another Prime Minister to address this issue.

Daniel Zekveld is a Policy Analyst with the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada.

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