Why Abortion shouldn’t be a litmus test for the Liberal Party

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

I will always remember when I learned that I did not have to believe in everything that a political party said, thought or felt. It was 1985 and I was eleven. David Peterson had a plurality of seats in Ontario’s Provincial Election and I was happy. For my dad was a supporter of the Ontario Liberal Party and therefore, I thought I had to be. When it became clear that “our Party” would not get a majority of the seats, I was sad. I told my dad that and we had a conversation.

To my surprise, he said he was happy. For he felt two things; firstly, in his own words, “Minority Governments are good”. Given that no single person has control of the Parliament, he reasoned everyone has to work together. Power is consequently shared and the best compromise legislation comes forth. All parties and interests are satisfied and the best governance is had.

The second point was simple: you don’t have to believe in everything a political party says. These two ideas were revolutionary because an eleven year old is always told what he should believe. It is true that my parents took me to an Anglican church and I attended Catholic elementary school. While I learned that different people had different thoughts, I had not learned that I could form my own opinion on “complicated” matters.

Now that I am a bit older and wiser, that I have studied Political Science, and been a part of a political party; I have learned a couple of things. While my dad was not right about Minority Governments, I have taken to heart his views on political parties. Political Parties are institutions which can be joined but they are not places that your faith should be. Or put differently, you will likely not agree with any political party 100% of the time. Today, I cannot agree with my leader on one issue: using abortion as a litmus test for candidates.

With this being said let me be clear: I believe that a woman should be able to choose whether or not she should have an abortion. I don’t believe that any law should be put in place that restricts that right and I am very comfortable with Canadian Law as it presently stands on this issue.

However, this was not always the case. When I was a Young Liberal in Ontario, I attended a policy convention in Ontario. I am almost certain I was in at Wilfred Laurier University, when I had to defend my position. At that time, I tried to defend my position – abortion only in the case of sexual assault, incest or where the health of the mother is in jeopardy – but it kept falling apart. With an inability to defend my argument, after an hour of discussion, I had to concede. Taking away a women’s right to choose was a bad idea. So, I changed my mind. The debate brought me face to face with my perspective and I could not hold that idea any longer. Consequently, it was in listening to people who disagreed with me that I learned that my position didn’t have merit.
As a Black Man, I know that this is often the case. I have been called an “Oreo” or other nicknames indicating that I don’t fit the “mould”. At times, I have challenged people on their stereotypes and more often than not I have changed their “opinions” and assumptions. While on the other side of that, I have had the pleasure of meeting and befriending those who are Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Each time I have learned and grown and I have passed that education on to others. Accordingly, it is clear that Openness, Honesty and Transparency is the easiest way to change a mind. Consequently, Openness and not shunning the perceived “Other”, should be the Liberal Way to promote change. Openness to those who oppose abortion is the easiest way to change minds.

With that being said, there are clearly elements that a Political Party does not want to have. For example, in the 1990’s, the Reform Party had a problem in attracting White Supremacist elements. Consequently, there should be a litmus test. But the question is what should it be?

We don’t want to be the NDP or the Conservatives because they are ideologically driven. Both parties of the left and the right are forced to exclude minority views. They force their candidates to be ideologically pure for their candidates have to adopt 100% of their parties’ policies. That approach is both silly and foolish for who in our society agrees with 100% of what their parties say. I know I don’t.

So if we are to have a test let us be as liberal, as open and as free as our name suggests we are. Firstly, the party should ask a simple question: Does our potential candidate or member’s ideas benefit or harm society? We know this is an essential question. For since our creation, Canada has had internal questions as to its composition and identity. In 1867, this question was one of religion. Protestant and Catholic tensions in Quebec and Ontario provided one of the reasons why Ontario and Quebec had religiously based education written into the Constitution.

However, that is only the beginning. In 1914, when Canada was accepting huge amounts of European migration, it turned away Komagata Maru. For that ship did not have the right people on board. Instead of preferred white Immigration, the passengers aboard the ship were Sikh, Muslim and Hindu. Or think of the Jewish Populations that were turned away between the 1930’s and 1945. From the Residential School System, Head Taxes on the Chinese Community to the Internment of Japanese, German and Italian communities, Canada has a problem with accepting those who have a different religion, faith, creed or skin colour.

Yet, in the 1950’s, we changed. Instead of being like Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, we accepted people from around the world. Jew and Gentile came to Canada. Those who were Sikh, Muslim, Hindu also followed. Immigrants came from Western Europe and the Caribbean, from Africa and Australia. Instead of practicing the politics that had been seen in Northern Ireland, we decided to eschew sectarianism and accept the “Other”. The results were amazing. Not only did we grow – because of people like my parents coming to this land – we also saw remarkable economic and social growth. This Liberal Initiative – started under Pearson and completed under Trudeau – led to our modern complex multicultural society. Consequently, our Openness has improved our Party, our Society and our Nation. So why would we want to change now. Today, we are lucky to have John McKay represent us in Scarborough-Guildwood and from all indications he will run again. He has been a non-violent pro-life advocate and I would argue that we are better for him. For as he puts it, he is pro-life: he speaks against abortion and equally speaks against the death penalty. He is a strong Liberal who appeals to Red Tories and many of those with strong religious beliefs – whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. So why would we not want many more people like John McKay in our Party, if not Parliament.

And this is important. For if we want to win seats in Vancouver (like Vancouver Kingsway), Calgary (like Calgary Centre) or in the GTA (especially the 905), we need to have a coalition of people. While, a March 2010 EKOS poll, describes 52% of Canadians as pro-choice, it notes that at least 27% of Canadians are pro-life. That is one in four. By saying the only acceptable candidates in our Party need to be pro-choice, we are saying that our party is not welcoming to those who have a different prospective. In turn, we are saying that the only party for those who have a different perspective is the Conservative Party.

This means we are essentially turning away ridings. Angus Reid Strategies noted in a June 2008 poll, that almost half of respondents (46%) believe abortion should be permitted in all cases. What is most interesting is that the Prairies had the highest percentage of people that were pro-life. In the 1997 election, Jean Chrétien won a majority. However, it was only a four seat majority. In that election, he won 6 seats in Manitoba. Or put differently, he won 42% of Manitoba’s federal seats. Mr. Chrétien also won one seat in Saskatchewan, two in Alberta and six in BC. Even Paul Martin, in his minority governments, won seats on the Prairies. Does anyone think that we will get a strong minority or majority government without appealing to those who are pro-life? And to get back to my original point, by excluding a significant part of the population from our party, we are not bringing different people together to create a better society. Consequently, our position does not benefit our society.

Additionally, we should ask: does our candidate’s policy harm individuals? Just think of Africville. Between 1964 and 1970, the Government of Nova Scotia destroyed a community called Africville. It was a predominately black community which dated back to 1812. Such a destruction of private property without proper compensation should be seen as an attack on individual rights. Candidates who would advocate the violation of individual liberty and dignity should be something that we rail against. For those actions prevent us from earning the Trust of Citizens. Without that Trust, we cannot talk to people about their problems and, if there is a role for government, maybe help to solve their problems.

So in talking to the problem, how does a candidate’s honesty about a policy position that they hold take away from that public trust. I would argue that it does not. While we might disagree with each other, Honesty in the Public Arena shows that one is confident and forthright in who they are. Voters love that.

So based on our small test, we can see that our Leader’s decision should be questioned. We should have the strength of character and the courage to say so. But there is still one problem: how do you rectify our Party’s new Pro-Choice position on Abortion with the potential of having a Pro-Life Candidate? I would say this is easy. We are a pragmatic party that can recognize the needs of local candidates and the preferred action of a national membership. In free votes while Mulroney was Prime Minister, the Liberal Party allowed individual MPs to vote their conscience. The majority of Liberal MPs vote against Capital Punishment and for the Freedom of Choice, but some voted against those positions. Our party didn’t disintegrate. We attracted Pro-Life Candidates and we still won a majority in the next election. Tolerance of a riding’s choice of a candidate does not mean that the party itself does not have a preference. However, that type of acceptance means that Pro-Life and Pro-Choice portions of the party can work together to come to a compromise position that represents the majority of Canadians. Or put differently, our Leader could argue that acceptance leads to conversation and a big tent approach. This type of conversation has always been our Party’s approach. It is how a Justice Minister named Pierre Elliot Trudeau got Parliament to agree to the decriminalization of sodomy and homosexuality and how Parliament came to get rid of capital punishment. With that being said, it seems an odd time to reverse this stance.

Therefore, I ask my leader and my party to change that stance and acknowledge that candidates can have a multiplicity of views on the issue of Abortion but the Party, as a whole, is Pro-Choice.

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2 thoughts on “Why Abortion shouldn’t be a litmus test for the Liberal Party

  1. Mr. Scantlebury, your opinion against Trudeau’s new policy is rooted in the false idea that women’s human rights are still negotiable and debatable. They are not.

    Just like political parties will no longer accept overtly racist candidates to run, they should also prevent people from running who want to restrict women’s rights. Trudeau’s new policy is long overdue.

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    1. Dear Joyce, Thank you for reading my piece. However, I would politely disagree with you. Given that you read my piece you would know that I am pro-choice. With that being said, I do know and acknowledge that not everyone shares my beliefs. In fact, as I noted in the piece, I was once mostly pro-life in orientation. I changed my mind though after having some debate and conversation. Consequently, given my experiences, I know that Mr. Trudeau has made a mistake; for he is essentially forgetting 25%+ of the population in making his pronouncement.

      This is important because the foundation for legal abortion in Canada is a precarious one. As you will remember, when the Supreme Court acted under the Mulroney regime to strike down abortion legislation, members of the majority argued that Parliament could bring back a different framework to be judged. Or put differently, they said that the legislation from the 1960’s was wrong and not that women have an absolute right to abortion. With that in mind, the Mulroney Government tried to pass legislation to re-regulate abortion. The only thing that stopped that legislation was the Senate of Canada.

      This fragility of legal abortion in Canada can be further highlighted by the fact that PEI does not have any facilities for abortions. (www.healthpei.ca/abortionservices) and the closure of the Morgentaler Clinic in Fredericton. Without legislation, keeping the conversation open to all is the only way that a reasonable approach to policy will be had on the issue of abortion rights and a number of other issue effecting women, minorities and disadvantaged groups.

      Consequently, I have to disagree with you, Mr. Trudeau’s policy is not detrimental to the cause of legal abortion in Canada.

      Like

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